Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6

Earthweb

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

by Marc Stiegler

Chapter Five

T minus Eighteen

The moment of decision came. The sudden transformation of Jessica’s palmtop from a quiet companion into a demon from the Depths heralded the event. The offending palmtop vibrated the room with the thunderous clap of electric guitars. The country metal group Avatars had a new hit single, and Jessica’s computer had shown great inspiration by choosing the melody to sing her to consciousness.

Jessica made an executive decision. She slapped the palmtop more forcefully than it deserved. The Avatars’ music disappeared from the room as quickly as it had arrived. Jessica muttered to no one in particular, "Ten more minutes."

Jessica drifted in and out of sleep. She scrumaged through the sheets, searching for the warmest spot remaining in the bed. She wished the bed were her own. If she were in her own bed, she could merely worry about Andrew Clay’s problem with building a management team around his socially-retarded-but-brilliant VP of engineering. If she were in her own bed, she wouldn’t worry about the survival of Earth. She wouldn’t dream about pain, blood, and lost lives.

Jessica had never liked working in her sleep, though she did it often. Normally working dreams kept her in limbo, left her unrested. Now her dreams kept her in hell and left her exhausted.

She tossed to the other side of the bed, tumbling like a soccer ball in a brutal game. Her training cycle was only going to get worse. Soon she would start work as a Combat Controller. Real people would die; those deaths would be her responsibility. Those deaths, those people, would haunt her dreams forever. And she hadn’t even met them yet.

The alarm came to life playing yet another tune. She did not recognize this one, but it ground her nerves even more than the Avatars. Only surrender could save her. She struggled to her feet to greet the day.

Jessica bent over and plunged her hands deep into her thick mane, massaging some life back into her scalp. Her brain felt as thick and tangled as her hair. At least she knew how to comb out the wild disarray in her hair.

She was fastening the silver belt of her green jumpsuit when a polite knock wrapped at her door.

"Coming," she yelled. "Just a minute." She dropped her brush and grabbed the deodorant. After two quick blasts, she realized it didn’t smell quite right. When she looked at the can, she realized she’d just used her hairspray under her arms. She closed her eyes and groaned softly. It was going to be one of those days. At least she was dressed.

She opened the door to find General Samuels towering over her. "Breakfast?" he asked.

Jessica raised an eyebrow. "What about the morning sim?"

The General shrugged. "We’re videotaping it; you can study it later. I want to hear how you’re doing with ’castpoints, which are now as important to our victories as MacBride himself."

The General walked down the sandstone hallways with an easy stride; Jessica found herself skipping from time to time to keep up. They reached his office, where Jessica found the aide laying out coffee for her, tea for the General, and danish pastries for all parties. She couldn’t resist harassing the aide. "Coffee and danish, my favorite breakfast. Tell the truth now. Have you been videotaping me, learning about me the way I’m learning about Morgan?"

The aide laughed graciously. "General Samuels told me what to procure for you, Ms. Travis."

She raised her eyebrow at the General. He shrugged. "I knew you drink coffee because when we first met, I caught you stare longingly at your autoperk, wishing the coffee would hurry up. The danish is a lucky guess. But don’t get confused, Jessica. Although we haven’t been videotaping you outside the cocoon, remember, our contract authorizes it. So don’t be surprised if we do it sometime." He sipped tea from his High Accuracy mug. "Actually, I can’t imagine why we’d want to any time soon."

Jessica’s eyes flickered around the room as she tried to think of a circumstance under which someone like the General might want to scrutinize her life. She found it. "But later, if I lead an Angel team and destroy a Shiva, you’ll want to do to me what I’m doing to Morgan. That’s why you’ve got that clause in the contract, isn’t it?"

The General smiled. "Excellent analysis. Even if you don’t take over Morgan’s job, perhaps you can take over mine."

Jessica snagged a cherry danish from the table and sat down. The danish was fresh and warm. She rolled her eyes. "Heavenly."

The aide nodded his head to her and departed. General Samuels turned to her. Suddenly, he was every bit the professor. "What new have you learned about ’castpoints since our last discussion, Ms. Travis?"

Jessica took her time and swallowed before answering. While working through college she’d done a stint as a researcher for Pacific Arbiters Inc., and in applying those research skills she had uncovered some very interesting tidbits. Her immediate problem was how to sneak up on Samuels with her surprise. "You know, before coming here, I’d always sort of looked on the ’castpoints as a big gambling game, like Vegas and Anguilla." She shook her head. "I must confess, there’s more to them than meets the eye."

"That’s a beginning. Can you tell me why Earth Defense spurred the development of ’castpoints in the first place?"

Jessica smiled; this was a question to which she knew the answer. "You were swamped with ideas coming off the Web. Worse, you were swamped with good ideas."

The General just shook his head in delight. "Wonderfully put. Go on."

Jessica shrugged. "During the final Shiva II assault, over half a billion people were watching the battle through the live webfeed." She took a sip of her coffee, which was, she found, fresh roasted and almost as sweet as the danish. "Lots of the people who were watching were talking at the same time. I’ve looked at some of the Web archives, and the whole world was alive with newsgroups and chatrooms full of proposals for how to deal with the new roboguards, guessing how Shiva was laid out, arguing about what kinds of opposition you’d get going different directions. A lot of it was garbage, of course, but here and there it was brilliant."

The General’s eyes reflected agony as he stared past her, past the wall, and into history. "You were what, fourteen at the time? You can’t imagine how frustrating it was to know that, somewhere in those twenty-five million conversations, someone was predicting exactly what would happen, for exactly the right reasons. But we had no way of finding that one thread of genius." His eyes focused on her again, waiting for more.

Jessica felt her face warm, blushing for no reason she could find. She felt like a wayward student speaking to a kind but determined professor. "Anyway, I found three different people in the archives who independently suggested the eventual strategy for killing roboguards. One of them came up with the idea seven hours before Morgan and Cochran figured it out. If Morgan had been able to find that idea on the Web, two of the Angels would not have gotten killed early in the engagement. We might have even gotten somebody out." For Jessica personally, the consequences of the lost opportunity had actually been much greater. Because it took the Angels so long to reach the Gate, Shiva II had survived long enough light off a missile at Silicon Valley. A lucky countermissile had gotten a piece of it, enough to deflect it from its target, but not enough to avoid tragedy: the multimegaton warhead had detonated near Sausalito, where Jessica’s parents’ home had been located.

The General looked into her eyes like he was reading her thoughts. "A terrible tragedy, the loss of northern San Francisco." He sipped his tea. "At least Shiva warheads don’t produce a lot of radiation. If they did, we’d have lost far more, and wouldn’t be rebuilding for a hundred more years."

Jessica had a tangential thought. "You know, if we didn’t have ’castpoints today, not even Morgan could get an Angel into Shiva’s control room. But if we’d had the ’castpoints then, I think we could have beaten the early Shivas without him."

The General nodded. "Undoubtedly." He returned quickly to professorial mode. "But now, please explain how the ’castpoints solved the problem of finding the widely spaced threads of genius in the Web."

Jessica squished up her eyebrows. "Well, it’s sort of obvious."

"I wish everyone thought that. There are still plenty of people in the military who don’t get the point."

"Well, how do you spot a good idea or a good forecast? Obviously, you make people put their money where their mouths are. Let them back a forecast with real bucks, and the serious ones will go for it, while the rest just hang out in the chat rooms. No muss, no fuss. No debating. No mediocre compromises. Just say it with money."

The General swallowed the last of a danish and sat back, finished. "Any other critical new insights, Jessica?"

Jessica started circling her biggest revelation. "Another thing I found in the archives was the startup of the first ’castpoint. It would seem, General, that that first one didn’t get started the day after the million-dollar bets were made."

"It didn’t? Really!" the General asked with mock surprise. Jessica could see he was laughing again—with her or at her, she wasn’t so sure.

"Not at all. Those bets were actually placed a while before the US, NATO, and the UN worked out the Earth Defense concept."

"So the idea was already in place, ready for Earth Defense to pick it up."

"Well, Earth Defense didn’t pick it up right away, either."

The General sipped his tea. His expression said he knew where Jessica was going, but that he would let her get there in her own time. And he would enjoy the journey. "Shocking! Perhaps they were bureaucrats after all."

"Perhaps. General Celenza, who’d commanded the US attack on Shiva II, was in charge for a little while, as caretaker while they picked the new Chief of Staff." She paused. "It would seem, General, that idea futures really took off just moments after you took over."

The General nodded sagely. "Interesting. Coincidence?"

Jessica stood up. "Coincidence my ass." She pointed a finger at him. "It was you, General Samuels. You started the ‘castpoints."

The General clapped. "Congratulations. You have gotten much closer to the truth than most people." He sipped his tea. "You said earlier, you had originally thought the ’castpoints were big gambling games. Aren’t they, really, just a form of gambling, like the office football betting pool?"

Jessica gave him a sidelong glance. "You’re trying to trick me, I can tell. When the ’castpoints first went into operation, a kind of gambling fever did sweep the markets. You might say that the ’castpoints first got their energy from their similarity to a football pool. But it didn’t last."

"Why not?"

Jessica took a deep breath. "An office betting pool has a very limited selection of participants, and in general the participants are not experts who can discriminate small differences in probabilities and risks. But the ’castpoints are inherently global. Statistics guarantee that over the long run the money will flow to the people who make the best predictions. It doesn’t work out for the amateur the way a small, closed football pool does." She shook her head from side to side the way she did when she was pretending to be a blonde. "Of course, the first wave of gambling fever on the ’castpoints ended sort of suddenly. One of the billionaires at the time—a guy who had made a fortune in computer software before the Crash—made a claim in public about the demise of the most popular operating system of the day. There were gales of laughter at the time, and a lot of people said, ‘Hey, if you really believe that, back a ’cast on it.’ " Jessica laughed. "The old geezer must have been in his eighties at the time, but he was still pretty savvy. He went ahead and backed the ’cast. A lot of people lost their shirts on that one."

The General steepled his fingers. "So that was the end of the gamblers?"

"Well, the end of the fever, anyway; I’m sure there are still gamblers out there playing the ’castpoints for kicks. But now the commercial ’castpoints work a lot like the commodities futures markets—engineering companies and insurance companies that need to hedge their bets in the face of technological change use them, the same way they use commodities futures to protect themselves from sudden changes in materials availability." She shrugged. " ’Course, at this point, there are billions of people who are experts in some aspect of some technology, so the world-wide pool of participants for the ’castpoints is much larger than the pool of commodities experts, even without the Earth Defense interest. So there are more people involved, and more money at stake."

The General sat back in his chair. "Whew! You really did learn a lot about this, didn’t you? I’ll have to be more careful in the future, if I’m going to keep any secrets at all."

Jessica frowned. The General’s eyes twinkled as he said it, but in back of the twinkle there was something . . .

The General’s aide knocked on the open door and looked in. "Sir, General Dehnad is on the line."

The General looked back at Jessica. She took a last drink of her coffee, snatched a last danish, and departed as the General picked up the line.

 

With slow, careful motions, the Dealer held up his palmtop to unlock his apartment door. He could feel his hand trying to shake. He refused to let it.

He could not, however, stop the chill that went down his spine. He knew, just knew, that they were still watching him.

Cops. He hated the damn creatures. Well, that wasn’t quite true. The cops were just trying to make a living too, after all. And when you got right down to it, even he liked having the cops around—without the cops who watched over his apartment complex, all kinds of lowlifes might threaten him.

But the apartment cops worked for him, and they knew it. They were always polite—polite in that warm, helpful way. The cops working for the Shao Lin Computer Parts Company did not work for him, however, and they also knew it. So though they’d been polite when they accosted him on the street in front of the apartments, it’d been tainted with the coldness that they’d always shown when talking to his father.

The cops couldn’t rough him up—indeed, the Dealer was sure they’d stopped him in front of the complex just so the Dealer’s own security people could watch and see how nice they were. But it had been unpleasant nonetheless.

Somehow, those bastards had fingered him as the fence for that truckload of motherboards. They couldn’t prove it—if they could, they’d have had a chat with the Dealer’s residential cops and dragged him to an arbiter in a flash—but they knew.

The Dealer closed the door behind him and took a slow deep breath. The room seemed cold. He turned down the air conditioning a couple of notches. He sat down at his desk and stared at his blank touchscreen, deep in thought.

Considering the risks involved, fencing stolen goods had a pathetic profit margin. He’d always figured it was a stepping stone on the way to something bigger. But he’d never figured out exactly what that bigger thing might be. Now he had to seriously consider the possibility that, unless he figured it out really quickly, the fencing operation would be a stepping stone to something smaller. Something a lot smaller, like a plasfoam box in a cold doorway.

Unconsciously, the Dealer open the middle right drawer of his desk. He kept his old palmtop there, his first one, the one he’d gotten from the government when he was eight years old. It had been the one thing he had taken with him when he left his father at the age of twelve, his one contact with people whom he could consider friends because they couldn’t hurt him through the simple electronic interface. He picked it up. The dull gray surface of the plastic box, once textured, was now worn smooth. The screen surface, once smooth, was now scratched from too much writing, too many commands entered in rough haste. He flipped it over and saw the seal of the Republic of Guangdong, big and bold. Beneath that, in very tiny English characters, lay the real truth behind the box: Earth Defense Agency. Earth Defense had supplied the Republic’s government with enough of these to make sure everyone had a chance to hook into the Web and educate themselves. The Dealer discounted the wild claims for the difference the palmtops had made. Nevertheless, for the Dealer himself the program had worked, though the successes he’d had with his palmtop could not have been part of the EDA plan. He smiled despite his predicament. His successes would have turned the EDA bureaucrats inside out with horror.

Chan Kam Yin returned to his current problem. If the cops nailed him to the crime, victim reimbursement plus investigation costs plus damages would strip him clean. He’d be back on the street again with nothing but his once-loved, now-antiquated palmtop. He couldn’t risk that. He’d have to find another scam, at least till the heat died down. Fortunately, he had a plan.

He just had to figure out how to find the Predictor. It wouldn’t be easy. Anybody like the Predictor, who did that kind of successful, insightful, but expensive analysis, would want to maximize his profit from it. That meant using a series of anonymous identities to buy and sell your forecasts. After all, if you used a consistent brand, people would watch your reputation grow and start tailriding once it became obvious you were a winner. Once that happened, you’d never get good odds.

Furthermore, to keep your tracks hidden, you’d use multiple anonymous identities for each forecast, spanking-new each time, each betting only a little money rather than making a big purchase. After all, even an anonymous identity that bought a big position on a ’cast would draw attention. Who but an expert with deep analytical knowledge would take a chance like that, particularly with long odds? Even such a hint as this would pick up riders that would send your odds to the toilet.

So the Predictor would surely be subtle about his purchasing. Consequently the Dealer would have to be subtle too. He’d been watching for patterns in the anonymous bets but hadn’t found any yet. He had to take this seriously, now, and nail it down.

With fresh, fear-driven enthusiasm, he flipped his touchscreen to life and poured over the results of the recent forecasts.

 

The car wove back and forth across the road, dodging the potholes and the people on bicycles as they hurtled along Interstate 93, down the long sloping hill from Boulder City to Lake Mead. The taxi driver, complacent about the whole matter, ventured another look at his fare; Reggie saw the man’s eyes staring at him in the mirror. "You aren’t one of the Faithful," he asserted confidently.

Reggie smiled weakly; he was getting carsick. Funny, he never got airsick in a skycar, but the stop/start weaving of the groundhuggers invariably left him quite undone. He answered, "You hit the jackpot on that ’cast. ’Course, the odds left you the heavy favorite, wouldn’t you say?"

The driver chuckled. "Yeah. You’re too normal for the Faithful."

Being normal certainly did make Reggie stand out here. Even the taxi, a nondescript Ford, stood out, though not for its archaic use of wheels instead of turbofans. Most of the crowd was coming by ground transport. Though not all, as he could see by pressing his face to the window and looking up. Numerous skycars homed in on his destination as well, and he watched them enviously. Though, he reluctantly confessed, even if he had been able to get one of the handful of landing permits authorized by the Church Of Stellar Light, he would have had to come by groundhugger anyway. Most of the participants were taking the road from McCarran InterPlanetary in Las Vegas. For his story he needed the full experience.

Reggie turned green as the cab swerved again. At last he saw the break in the old fencing along the interstate and the crude dirt path snaking off to the left, down to the revival’s extensive site on the lake front. He could hear the music from here, even with the windows closed. He groaned quietly; he hadn’t brought any earplugs.

He was still not quite sure why he was here. Rather, he knew, but didn’t like admitting it. The editor of the Newsweek website had begged him to do a story about lost souls and the Month of Shiva, challenging Reggie’s assertion that their numbers were declining. Reggie had apologetically said no, and had held to it . . . until all nine full-time members of the Newsweek staff had sent him a singing email, reiterating the request. They were all friends from earlier in his career. How could he refuse? Besides, the singing was awful. He’d do anything to avoid another email like that.

The coming of Shiva set off a host of contradictory trends. The high end of the economy and the low end gained strength as the middle dwindled. Top-flight sports cars—particularly the new supersonic twelve-fan models—sold so fast it was hard to get a test drive. But you couldn’t sell a used family skycar no matter how fine its maintenance record. People were buying fantasies—why not, if you’ve got only a month to live?

At the other end of the spectrum, sales of microwave dinners suffered as people ate more meals at restaurants, sharing some kind of herd instinct . . . but brown rice and dried beans sold well as born-again survivalists stocked up for the post-apocalyptic siege.

Each of these trends suggested distinctive individual coping strategies. Another trend had emerged as well, however. The Church of the Stellar Light faced dramatic growth in devotees.

The Church knew the truth, and broadcast throughout the world for anyone who would listen: Shiva would one day destroy all the weapons of Earth. It would then proceed to wipe every trace of evil human habitation from the planet. Finally Shiva would collect the Faithful from the six safepoints scattered around the globe. Lake Mead, just south of one of the most sinful cities of the planet, was such a safepoint.

To Reggie, though, this safepoint looked more like Hell.

The cabbie stopped; Reggie left a tip and stepped out. He stopped as if hit by gunfire—the burning sun slapped his face like a hot metal hand. The dust kicked up by the cab itself choked him.

 

Come on, people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to . . .

Reggie listened to the music. The beat had a classical cadence to it. Something from before the Crash. It was catchy in its mellow sort of way. He just wished they could turn it down a little; even mellow music drummed like a war cry at that many decibels.

A fellow in faded camos drifted past him. Stoned. A striking woman arrayed in silk scarves circled close to him, one breast ornamentally displayed. Biosculpted. She was chanting in a singsong voice.

He could see litters of discarded trash here and there amongst the Faithful. The wind picked up a plastic bottle and whirled it across the field, bouncing off the participants in a reticulated dance similar to the whirling motions of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the crowd. The whole scene looked to be straight from that old documentary he had seen about Wood-something. A pause came in the music. For a moment he could think clearly. The dust and the people faded from view as, with his mind’s eye, he could see the one person he most wanted to talk to: Mercedes Ossa. Yes, he needed her here, her eyes laughing as she turned her clean incisive wit on the people inundating him. Standing alone in the crowd, he felt neither the clever laughter Mercedes might supply, nor the primitive joy of the Faithful dancers.

A gap separated him from these people, a chasm he doubted he could ever cross. Did they believe in some deep, subliminal fashion that if they denied Shiva’s existence vehemently enough the ship would disappear? Or did they feel themselves so helpless, only denial remained for them?

The idea of denial was as hopelessly foreign to him as the idea of fighting might seem the people around him. He’d spent his teenage years as a fierce competitor. Just ask the guy who’d had to settle for the Olympic silver medal.

Did the Faithful think the race with Shiva was already over? Who had won?

The lake drew his eye. Like Mercedes, it too was clean and incisive. A lone waverunner skimmed the surface on the far side of the lake, as far from the Faithful as it could get. Soon the music would begin again, and Reggie yearned to join the runner.

A rumbling sound bellowed down the hillsides behind him. It was a sound mostly heard in old movies–the sound of a gasoline-powered motorcycle engine. Only one group still wandered the desert lands with honest-to-God motorcycles. Reggie didn’t have to turn or look to know who had just arrived, who now gazed over the crowd like a hawk studying baby mice. The Brute Squad motorcycle gang and their leader Chuck "Wire" Goldstar had just arrived. A very different subculture had just come to the party. Reggie’s story was about to get more exciting. He hoped he’d live through it.

Reggie had met Chuck once before. Reggie had been doing a story about the Defenseless, people who didn’t have arrangements with any conventional security agencies. Sort of like the pre-Crash homeless people. An impoverished Defenseless girl, terrified of her violent possessive boyfriend, had been going through Chuck’s initiation ritual. It looked more like a gang rape. But the girl didn’t object; she judged the boyfriend the greater of the dangers.

Reggie and the Wire had both walked away from that encounter with whole skins. Neither had been entirely happy about it.

Reggie reached for his palmtop, to call for help. He could feel the skin tighten on the back of his neck as multiple pairs of biker eyes turned on him, picking him out easily as one of the few people there who might defy them.

But the Church had apparently anticipated the Brute Squad’s arrival. A dozen blue-and-gold skycars, all with the BKM logo embossed on the side, swept down out of the sun. They filled the sky with the low drone of a million hummingbirds. And though they might sound like hummingbirds, they had more in common with T. Rex. The cavalry had arrived.

Reggie pocketed his palmtop. His security agency in Britain, Velvet Glove, had cross-contracts with BKM. The Church had made his call for him. Reggie turned, and looked out at the bikers for the first time. Most of the bikers were now looking up at the BKM skycars. A few sat back on their bikes so he could see metal tubes aiming into the sky—enough missile launchers to start a war.

The thin chap in a leather vest and yellow bandana had his arm pointing to the sky, but he still watched Reggie. Muscles like thin steel ropes whipped beneath his skin. Reggie stared into the man’s angry brown eyes, a contest of wills, eyeball to eyeball. "Well, Wire, we meet again," Reggie muttered.

For several moments the situation hung in a delicate tableau. It could not last.

Reggie found himself working through the logic the leader of the Brute Squad now faced. The Squad had no mutual arbitration contracts with the BKM. So if a fight broke out, it would go to a government court rather than an arbiter. The case would take a tremendous amount of time, cost a lot of money, and produce uncertain justice. All these problems weighed on BKM more than the Brute Squad—uncertain justice favored the aggressor, not the victim.

However, the BKM, understanding this scenario, would engage in massive intervention if the bikers started a fight—massive enough so that it would be the BKM, not the bikers, who owed damages at the end of a long court battle. The BKM would do just about anything to minimize unreclaimable damages to their clients.

The Wire would have to go for the total destruction of the BKM contingent to come out ahead. Very unlikely. And worse for the Wire would be to succeed—BKM would surely pay Pinkerton a big premium to finish the job if BKM got chewed up.

The Wire lowered his hand and spoke into the microphone in his helmet. The rocket launch tubes rotated on the bikes of the owners, to point down to the ground. There would not be a war today.

The Wire smiled at Reggie, displaying jagged teeth that had seen too many fists, not enough dentists. He reached into his saddle pack, pulled out two long-necked, dark beers, and walked on over to Reggie. "You get around," the Wire commented, offering him the beer.

Dry as the Nevada air might be, the beer was so cold that a fine mist already clung to the glass bottle. Reggie suddenly realized how thirsty the desert was. He shook his head, declining the offer nonetheless. "What brings you to the Church of the Stellar Light, Wire?"

The Wire shrugged. "My guys are tense. I brought them down here for a little fun in the sun."

Reggie looked into his eyes in disbelief. The Wire wasn’t a dummy. "You knew the BKM would show up."

The gang leader looked up at the skycars from beneath bushy gray eyebrows. "Yeah. I figured a little polishing the old shooters would be good for ’em, and once they saw the opposition, they’d cool down." He smiled again. "So now we aren’t shooting each other."

It was a revelation. The Wire had counted on the BKM to calm down his own people!

"How many days left, Wire?"

The Wire answered instantly. "Eighteen."

There was a long pause. Reggie said softly. "It gets to your people to, huh?"

"Yeah." The Wire took a last deep swig from one of the beers, dropped the empty bottle on the ground. He waved the other one at Reggie. "See ya ’round." He turned and walked back to his followers.

Reggie now had a very different angle on his story than he’d had before.

Music blared forth. A fight would have been quieter.

Reggie turned from the noise and the two distinct crowds that now overfilled the desolate countryside. He trotted up the hill, cutting a little to the west. It took a long time, and he was sweating by the time he arrived, but eventually he made it to the far side of a large boulder. Out of the line of projection of the loudspeakers, he found an oasis of quiet. He opened his palmtop, linked to Mercedes. One of the side benefits of working with her on the contract at her father’s house had been that he’d gotten her email address. He hoped she’d answer his request for a realtime chat.

"Mr. Oxenford," Mercedes voice sounded suspicious and irritated from his computer’s tiny speaker. "What do you want now?"

"I want you to save me. Please," he begged, holding his palmtop close to his lips and shouting—though he was out of range of the bands, even the wind here whipped loudly.

"Save you?"

"I’m at the Stellar Light Revival on Lake Mead," he continued. "I am being destroyed by the Twin Mysteries of the Pyramids and the Crop Circles."

"What are you talking about?"

Reggie smiled. "Meet me and I’ll tell you." When Mercedes did not respond, he continued on a pleading note. "If you don’t rescue me, I shall go mad. And deaf as well," he said.

There was a long pause. At last, the tinkle of laughter came through his palmtop. "Well, it’s too late to save you from going mad. But I guess it would be a shame if you went deaf. How do I save you?"

 

Having turned off the cooling in his apartment, the stifling air had now grown too warm. Chan Kam Yin wiped his forehead where a thin bead of perspiration had taken shape. He hardly noticed the heat, or the sweat, or his own action to brush it away. He had entered mental overdrive. The whole world narrowed down to a few lines of text on his screen.

It had taken him countless hours to find the pattern. But he had it now. Anonymous identities danced the markets, making purchases in a certain size range, clustered over an extended but nonetheless well-defined time interval. The anonymous clusters tended to buy positions where the odds were against them. Even more interesting, they tended to win. If they weren’t controlled by the Predictor, they were controlled by someone just as good for the Dealer’s purposes. He knocked out a simulation of what would have happened in the past couple of weeks if he’d ridden the predictions of these anonymous clusters. The ride generated pure wealth. Pushing himself for one last effort, he found an open ’cast with the same pattern in place. He moved into play. Success. He had just locked his own fate to that of the Predictor.

The Dealer sat back, relaxing in perfect satisfaction. He rubbed the crick in his neck; someday, he promised himself, he’d get ergonomic furniture, to go with the wallscreen of which he dreamed. The days of comfort, he promised himself, drew closer.

He felt tired but not sleepy. With his eyes glazed open he scanned the Web markets, just surfing the goods for sale, the prizes for winning, the jobs available. It seemed a good moment to look for additional opportunities. In due course, an intriguing Request For Proposals drew his eye.

He’d found the RFP posted in the Anguilla Seaside Web Market. The solicitor, Supercon Intercepts, had requested a custom-designed skytruck to cart a large, awkward device to the top of Mount Everest. Doing a global search on the Supercon Intercepts brand, the Dealer could see that they did a lot of contracting for Earth Defense. That made sense: who but Earth Defense would want to drag something that unwieldy to the remotest pinnacle of the planet? Particularly during the Month of Shiva, when just about everybody else on the planet put aside their on long-term projects and concentrated on the next couple of weeks.

The Dealer spent but a moment puzzling over the purpose of the ungainly payload: the description of the object only gave aerodynamic information, and its purpose didn’t really interest him that much. What fascinated him was the set of constraints on the skytruck. The requirements were fierce.

The truck would have to be a brute. A big brute, with huge lungs—the truck would gasp for breath, hovering in the thin air above Everest.

For a moment he thought about just shipping the thing with a roton . . . but the ungainly shape really ruled a roton out. No, the RFP writer had been correct specifying a skytruck.

The engines would constitute the biggest problem. Conventional skytrucks used electrically powered turbofans, fuel-efficient but not as powerful as you’d like for this application. Worse, you’d need a custom-designed supercharger to supply oxygen to the fuel cells, adding yet more weight and considerably cutting down on the efficiency of the full engine assembly. You might be able to lift the cargo that way, but the Dealer sure wouldn’t take a ’cast on it. At best it would cost a fortune.

Most people would have had to give up trying to solve the problem at that point. But the Dealer knew something most people didn’t know: Saab had built a next-generation combustion engine, using the same principles as the original Moller engines that powered the first skycars, but updated to use ceramic materials and burn pure hydrogen. He’d run into the Saab spec sheets while perusing the websites for antique car buffs, antiques being about the only things around these days that still used combustion. Saab had been trying to build a business in engine retrofits.

Anyway, the Saab engines were just the monsters for this job.

The Dealer suddenly realized that his expertise on combustion engines gave him the inside track on this deal—could he really win the contract? Why not? He could surely undercut anyone foolish enough to bid using conventional technology!

He searched the Web for a suitable airframe; he needed something sturdy but open-framed, so the odd corners of the package could stick out. The frame was pretty easy to find, though it took a bit more surfing to find the bottom-end price he wanted. He needed to buy the frame cheap, because he couldn’t go cheap on the flight control system: Because of the complicated effects of the payload’s center of gravity, with all the appendages exposed to the fierce turbulence at twenty-nine thousand feet, he’d need top-of-the-line flight control. Only the shortest response times, the most precise corrections, would satisfy the demand. He hated going with expensive parts. It hurt deep inside. But it was necessary.

He wasn’t sure how to carry the hydrogen for the engines, whether to use an adsorptive powder, a simple pressure cylinder, or whether to liquefy it; he didn’t trust the pressure cylinders, but the adsorptive power was heavy, and refrigeration would surely be both heavy and technically tricky. After staring at the alternatives for a while, he realized that he wasn’t the right guy to make this call. He posted a request for consulting services on the Web, to see if he could get a real expert to give him a quick answer.

Meanwhile, he turned on his CAD package and started integrating the pieces he’d already identified. His CAD system wasn’t really up to this, it was almost a toy—you don’t need fancy stuff for working on Mustangs—but despite its flaws it could still give him some sense of whether the pieces of his plan could sing in harmony.

Four in the morning came and went. He knew he ought to hit the sack, but his mind was flowing with the elements of the operation. He fiddled with the design till it looked as good as he could get it in his CAD system. Satisfied with that phase of the analysis, he rented a little time on a high-end system from the server complex in Novosibirsk. With that he could run a professional simulation of his new invention.

Meanwhile, a hydrogen power specialist in Germany answered his consulting request. The pressure cylinder was the way to go, though the German gave him a pointer to a particular Australian manufacturer who had a million-dollar bond backing the reliability of his products. If the cylinder failed, the Dealer could make a bigger profit than if it worked.

He still had twenty-four hours before he had to submit the proposal to Silicon Intercepts, and the CAD servers still needed a couple of hours before reporting on their simulations. It was time to get some sleep.

* * *

Morgan tapped the control, and the hatch of his cocoon opened in smooth silence. He rolled out into the brighter light of the office. The clock read 1600.

The office door swung wide. Morgan looked up to see CJ, her hair still glistening wet from the shower, sweep into the room. He considered making a tart remark about knocking first. Futile, he knew.

His momentary pause gave CJ the chance to initiate combat. "I told you we’d finish early."

Morgan pursed his lips. "So you did. Congratulations."

CJ rubbed his shoulder, the shoulder that wasn’t supporting Sol. "No, congratulations to you, oh Mighty Angel Controller. You’re the one who supplied the inspiration." She watched for the puzzled expression on his face before explaining, "I was excited enough about our date that I couldn’t help winning."

"So it’s a date now, is it?" Morgan said with an edge of steel in his voice.

"Sure." CJ placed a finger in front of Sol, and commanded, "Up."

Sol obediently climbed up on her finger, and contorted her head to rub it against CJ’s thumb. "Solomon, there’s someone I want you to meet," CJ said. "Since you can’t come with us, I thought I’d introduce you to a new friend."

Morgan watched CJ dash down the hall with his parrot, and for a just a moment, he felt a shock of isolation. He was alone with no one, not even his arrogant bird, as company.

Then CJ reappeared, moving with the speed of a tornado, and suddenly Morgan wished for his isolation to continue. He knew it was to no avail, however. "Okay, Angel Leader, where did you ditch my bird?"

"With someone who can use Sol’s skills better than you can," CJ answered smugly. "Don’t worry, she’s in fine hands." CJ climbed onto one of the reinforcing steel bars across the back of his wheelchair, and stretched over Morgan’s shoulder to reach the joystick under his right hand. She grabbed the control and pushed forward, causing the three of them—the captive Morgan, the maniacal CJ, and the submissive wheelchair—to charge down the hall at a speed Morgan hadn’t attempted in years.

Morgan considered closing his eyes. No, if he was going to die, he wanted to see it coming. He stared straight ahead and said casually, "You’re going to get us killed, you know. Wouldn’t it be better to save your kamikaze instincts for the mission?" He raised an eyebrow and tried to smile into her eyes, but her breast was in the way, and her head was held rigidly up as she concentrated on the driving. Morgan noticed that his hands were clamped tight around the arms of the chair. He forced himself to relax.

The chair bounded toward the door, which opened automatically just fast enough for CJ to squeeze them through the center without a scratch. "How was that?" she asked her kidnapping victim.

"Typical," he snorted.

In moments they’d reached a drab green skycar, too ugly to be anything but military issue, even without the small label, Property of Earth Defense Agency on the side. It was specially designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and Morgan had to wonder who CJ had wheedled to get control of this vehicle for the afternoon. He wouldn’t put it past Samuels to support this effort . . . though on reflection he didn’t buy it. Samuels understood the dangerous consequences of this fraternization as well as he did.

Once again, Morgan wished he had the strength of personality to stop CJ’s playfulness. But he could dimly remember what it was like to play. The part of him that had died with his wife Elisabeth stirred briefly to life once more, urging him on.

Their car leaped in the air, and CJ piled on the speed. She started to whistle; the notes melted on one another in a fashion that did not quite add up to a melody. Eventually it dawned on Morgan that CJ was whistling a parrot tune. Very scary.

Morgan cleared his throat. "Dare I ask where we’re going?"

"Sure, ask all you like."

Silence fell. No further answer ensued.

Morgan watched the barren landscape of Nevada flow underneath them, then saw the line of hills that surrounded the Colorado River on the Arizona border. The skycar began to descend. As they closed in on an inlet to the river, he could see a row of boats, and eventually he made out the sign on the establishment: Golden Shores Marina. "We’re going boating?" he asked.

"Almost," CJ said. She dug in the backseat of the car. "Here, put this on." She handed him a bulky but lightweight vest.

Morgan looked at the thing doubtfully. "A life preserver?"

"Safety first," CJ chirped. "Now put it on." The car landed itself, and CJ started stripping out of her clothes.

Morgan blushed and started to look away before he realized that she was wearing a bathing suit underneath.

CJ caught his eye and smiled. "Like the suit? Sorry it’ll get covered in a minute." She grabbed another vest from the back and pulled it on. "Let’s go," she said. She popped the doors. Morgan reached for his controls, but CJ was already reaching for him. "You really ought to wear your legs, old man," she complained. "Then you wouldn’t have to put up with me so much." She lifted him out of the wheelchair and swung him onto her back. She set off at a fast march down the ramp to the slips.

"This is undignified," Morgan barked in her ear.

"Like I said, wear your legs next time."

Morgan tried to guess which boat they were going toward: was it the long, lean, jet boat, or the clever little catamaran? Suddenly CJ stopped, and he knew the dreadful certainty: they were not getting on any of the real boats. Rather, they were getting on the itty bitty, green-and-white waverunner bouncing in the gentle waves of the dock.

CJ did not hesitate for even a moment before grabbing the left handlebar and stepping across with her right leg. Balancing carefully, she lowered the two of them onto the runner. "Wrap your arms around my waist," she ordered him, and Morgan obeyed automatically; he now understood in the most primal sense why CJ was the Angel Lead.

CJ pressed the throttle with her thumb, and they pulled away from the dock. The departure was leisurely.

"What’s this, speed demon, why are we traveling slower than my wheelchair?" he needled her.

She looked back at him with a sweet smile. "This is a no-wake zone," she said. She was still looking at him as they crossed the slightly narrowed mouth of the inlet, into the river. Her smile twitched just a bit wider, and that was all the warning Morgan had as her thumb squeezed down and the waverunner exploded forward. "This is not a no-wake zone," she yelled at the top of her powerful lungs, barely loud enough to be audible against noise of the rising wind and the bubbling water spray. Moments later they were going fifty miles an hour, leaping out of the water in time to the waves that crashed against them. "Now we’re traveling," she screamed in satisfaction.

Morgan held on for dear life.

 

Jessica looked intently at her new acquaintance. "Okay, Solomon, I hear you like chicken. Right?"

Solomon whistled a phrase from "Joy to the World." "Chicken good. Yummy!"

"The next question is, do you like white meat or dark?"

Solomon’s head rocked back and forth eagerly. "White. White."

"Your wish is my command." Jessica reached across the table to the box of Kentucky Fried, pulling it close. She walked around the coat rack serving as a makeshift bird stand, and pulled a substantial knife from a drawer in the kitchenette. With swift strokes, she cut the chicken into Solly-bird bite-size pieces.

Solomon gave her a wolf whistle and dug in.

Jessica chewed on a chicken wing herself and watched Solly pick her piece apart. The thought struck her that the bird was more or less engaged in an act of cannibalism. But then, how closely related was a chicken to a parrot, after all? Would Solomon consider it cannibalism for her to eat beef, just because humans and cattle were both mammals?

Cannibalism or no, Solomon snacked her way through the chicken breast at an impressive clip. Upon finishing, she asked Jessica for the second time that evening, "Solomon stay all night?"

Jessica nodded. "That’s what CJ said. I think your Boss is in trouble with her." When it had become obvious through her video spying that CJ would need to plant the bird with someone, Jessica had quietly let it be known around the base that she had dealt with birds before—which was the simple truth, her mother having kept an aviary, a veritable Noah’s Ark for the bird kingdom, during Jessica’s childhood. So Jessica had not been surprised the previous afternoon when, stepping out of her cocoon, she had found CJ standing in her office, looking for someone to take good care of Solomon this evening. Jessica had quickly agreed to the planned overnighter because, in her role of learning everything about Morgan, it seemed reasonable to become acquainted with Morgan’s oldest surviving friend.

"CJ good girl. Solomon good girl. Boss needs us."

"Frankly, Solly-girl, I’m surprised you aren’t jealous of CJ."

"Jealous of people-girl? No, no. She not parrot!"

"I guess that makes sense." Jessica put her chicken down. "You know, Sol, I’m supposed to learn everything I can about your guy."

"Okay. You next Boss?"

Jessica considered the question. "Well, that’s the plan."

"Okay, Okay. I help."

"Cool, Sol." Jessica slid closer. "I was hoping you could answer some questions I have." She watched Solomon’s eyes wander over to the box of chicken. "And I have plenty of food."

"Ask, ask."

Jessica could see that it would be a pleasant evening, discussing her job with the most alien intelligence of her experience.

 

Free at last. Reggie took the rickety old taxi to Henderson, where he rented a skycar and took off for Lake Havasu.

He had offered to fly to Stanford to pick Mercedes up, but she had sensibly pointed out how it was ridiculous for him to fly for an hour to get her, then turn around to go most of the way back. She had assured him that she was a big girl, and her car worked perfectly well. He had bowed to her logic and her stubbornness.

He saw her at the Bridge, a light breeze ruffling the folds of her simple blue shirt; her cutoff jeans were too tight for the wind to catch them. "Mercedes!" he waved to her. She did not hear, and he tried again. The second time she waved back. He started trotting toward her. Realizing how undignified it was, he slowed to a quick walk. They met at the end of the bridge.

Mercedes brushed her hand across the old stones of the bridge. "Goodness, I had no idea what a sullen collection of gray rocks they’d used to make the London Bridge. Tell me, is this typical of your country’s architecture? Is it all this dreary? Or did they run a big prizeboard to find the most sorrowful stones of the nation to build this bridge?"

Reggie looked at the stones beneath his feet. Someone with more money than sense had moved the Bridge to Havasu from London long before the Crash. "No, Britain is certainly not this dreary." He pointed to the cloudless sky. "Here, the sun shines brightly. Such sunshine gives everything a dash of luster. At home, in the gray fog, this bridge was surely much more dreary."

Mercedes laughed. He joined her. For just a moment, he was a little more serious. "Of course, if they’d left the bridge in London, the first Shiva would have vaporized it."

She shook her head. "I’m sorry. Did you lose anyone . . . important?"

Reggie shrugged. "It’s hard to be British and not to have lost someone when London burned." He’d been eight years old at the time. He’d spent two days trying to dig his mother out of the rubble of their home before someone noticed and took him away. His father had been in the financial district. There hadn’t even been any rubble there to dig through.

Reggie clapped his hands. "But enough of this. I thought I’d take you for a different kind of a ride."

Mercedes raised an eyebrow.

He held up a pair of keys. "Let me show you." He walked with her down to the wharf and pointed.

Mercedes laughed again. "Waverunners! You’re right, it’ll be a new experience. I’ve never been on one of these before." Her expression turned doubtful. She looked down at her clothes. "Umm, I’m not exactly dressed for this."

Reggie pointed at himself, with his creased pants and polished black leather shoes. He widened his eyes. "You think you’re not dressed for it?" He pointed at the Catch’n Rayz sun boutique a short distance away. "I made arrangements. Pick a swimsuit; it’s yours."

"Goodness!" Mercedes said. "You have all the bases covered, don’t you?"

"Constant preparation and attention to detail is a British trademark." Reggie looked down his nose ever so smugly.

"Mmm . . . I thought it was a national form of obsessive-compulsiveness."

"No, you’re thinking of the Germans," Reggie replied grandly. "Race you to the shop."

Mercedes won the race to the shop easily. However, Reggie was the first to pick a suit and get back to the waverunners. He watched the shop, and when Mercedes came out, his heart almost stopped.

She had chosen a metallic purple one-piece, about as conservative a suit as the shop had. But nothing in Catch’n Rayz could really be called conservative. Her copper-bronze skin glowed in the sunshine. She was so beautiful it hurt.

Reggie flexed his muscles. They were good muscles, he enjoyed stretching them. He hadn’t raced in ten years. But he still swam laps whenever he was home in Dover . . . which wasn’t really that often, if you got right down to it.

He threw Mercedes the bracelet that keyed one of the runners. He himself hopped on the other machine. She stepped onto her vehicle with less grace than normal as the runner rocked beneath her feet.

Mercedes moved the handlebars left and right. "Is this little thumb-lever the throttle?" she asked, pushing it down. Suddenly she was moving as the electric motor silently went into action. "Ooops," she said, releasing the control.

Reggie gunned his own steed and caught up with her. "Careful, it’s a no-wake zone here," he chided her, and brought his own machine to a legal speed. Mercedes followed him out into the main lake, hugging his port side.

Just as Reggie could still marvel at the roton, he was now amazed by his waverunner. He had seen old footage of the first waverunners. Nightmares on water. Those machines had screamed like banshees as you brought them up to speed, ruining the water’s pleasure for everyone for miles around. Clearly detestable toys of the proletariat, at least from a proper British perspective.

These waverunners, though, were hardly louder than canoes. At least, they were no louder than canoes at canoe speeds.

The two of them reached deeper water. Reggie heard the sound of rushing waves rise astern, off his port side. Next a gale of laughter surged passed him, and Mercedes picked up the pace, accelerating ever faster. He gunned his own engine to catch up, but she had gotten the edge and was not about to yield. The wind whipped her long black hair in sinuous waves; the light of the sinking sun caught the edges of the waves, splintering with flecks of red and gold.

Mercedes veered to starboard to avoid a speedboat—a boat that seemed big and clumsy to a rider of the wave—and Reggie got caught in her wake, putting him even farther behind. Finally, she noticed that he was not by her side anymore and slowed down. He bounced out of her wake and maneuvered to her starboard side once more. "That way," he yelled, pointing north.

Mercedes nodded. She spun the waverunner on its heel as if she’d been born to it. Once again her vehicle rose out of the water as she glided to full speed. This time Reggie expected it and clung doggedly to her side. They sped along for a couple of minutes before they reached the mouth of the Colorado River that fed the lake. Reggie glanced at the GPS-location map, the only instrument the vehicle had besides the fuel gauge. He waved Mercedes slightly to port, and soon they were running out of the lake, up the river.

Finally, Mercedes slowed down. The rush of wind and water subsided, and they could talk. "Goodness, it’s beautiful out here," she exclaimed. Her eyes swept over the hills and low-slung mountains that staggered away from the river.

"Yes. Quite austere, but quite beautiful in its own, different way." He pointed at the hills. "How can you have such a barren desert, just a few meters away from a veritable flood of water?" Despite the sometimes thick clusters of reeds and other greenery at the water’s edge, the hills stood starkly barren, highlighting the naked beauty of the red and golden-yellow stone that embodied the region.

Mercedes saw, and understood. "You’re right. It’s odd," she replied. Her face lit up with a wonder that mirrored Reggie’s own feelings, and Reggie could not help believing he had met a soulmate.

"This section of the river is called Topock Gorge, by the way, if you ever want to come back." Reggie spotted a tiny beach on the eastern shore of the river up ahead and waved to his companion. "Come with me," he said, and led her onto land. "Let’s go on up the hill," he suggested.

"Not yet," Mercedes replied. Unbuckling her life jacket as she went, she ran back out into the water, her long legs splashing water in all directions.

"Hey!" Reggie called. "Come back here!"

Mercedes dived headfirst into the water.

Reggie had no choice but to follow.

He dove into the water, a shock as cold as the air was hot. But he’d expected that, and started cruising toward the escaping girl. He’d catch her in less than a minute.

But somehow he seemed to have trouble catching up. He lifted his head for a moment to get a good look and saw why. Mercedes was pulling away with a flat-out butterfly stroke. Only a pro could master the rhythm of the butterfly with Mercedes’ sinuous grace. He was being hustled!

Reggie surged back into the water, pulling out all the stops. He followed his butterfly in a wide arc as she tried to outrun him and get back to the beach. Finally he came close enough grasp her foot on the upstroke of a dolphin kick.

"Hey!" Mercedes spluttered, laughing and catching her breath at the same time. "Thought I’d be easy just because you got a medal, right?" She tread water and splashed his face with one hand. "Wrong, buster!"

Reggie puckered his lips, blew her a kiss, and slapped a huge wave back at her. They swam back to the beach side by side.

They reached the beach. Reggie once again pointed up the hill. With wordless agreement, they started to climb.

The sun descended. The air felt cool as the water trickling down their backs dried. Mercedes started a new conversation. "You promised you’d tell me about the Twin Mysteries, crop circles and pyramids."

Reggie chuckled. "So I did. And now I am honor-bound to explain." He clasped his hands together. "Consider the pyramids. Could you have built them with your bare hands?"

Mercedes laughed. "Of course not." She traced a finger lightly across Reggie’s chest muscles; he tried not to flinch. "Perhaps you could, though."

Her touch had destroyed his train of thought, and it took him a moment to recover. Her eyes were still laughing when he went on. "For you, perhaps I could. But lifting the stones into place, difficult as it is, is not the hardest part of building a pyramid. Laying it out with the required precision is even more remarkable, particularly without modern tools."

"I suppose so." She looked away, pursing her lips. "You’re right, it would be pretty hard to do."

Reggie clapped his hands. "There you have it. Clearly, the pyramids are too big and too well constructed to have been created by mere primitive humans. Clearly, they must have been built by aliens from another star." He swung his arms out in a great arc, ending in the sky.

Mercedes reached out with her hand in an arc that came within millimeters of his chest but did not touch. He snapped his hands down in a defensive reflex, fast enough to grab her hand in his. He did not let go. She did not try to escape.

"The crop circles, of course, are more mysterious than the pyramids. How could you see what you were building except by flying, and how could you cut such a swath without a machine that would leave a telltale trail from the road?" He held his head in mock pain. "Impossible for the mortal man. Crop circles too must have been created by aliens."

Mercedes guessed where he was going. "And the Church of the Stellar Light turns that attitude into religion. If we can’t even build pyramids and crop circles, how can we hope to fight these really, truly alien spaceships?"

Reggie nodded. "That’s how it looks to me." He sighed. "It’s hard to dent the faith, too." He chuckled. "But once in a while you get a special circumstance . . ." He became lost in a personal reverie.

Mercedes poked him in the shoulder. "Yes? I take it you brought someone some Light of your own?"

Reggie shrugged. "More or less. My grandmother was certain that aliens must have created the crop circles." The lines of his face drew back in pleasure at the memory. "I never could have convinced her with logic and diagrams that people made them. But I convinced her nonetheless. I gave her a coffee-table book—a real book, mind you, something solid and expensive that suggested it wasn’t forged and couldn’t be dismissed like a Web page. The book was a photo layout of all the winners of the annual crop circle competition, in Kansas. The winner with the red baseball cap didn’t look like an alien at all." His chuckle took on a wicked tinge. "Though some of the other winners, I confess, looked rather strange and alien. Forced me to question my own beliefs."

Mercedes laughed, and put her arm through his. The warmth of her body drew a line up the side of his hip and shoulder.

They reached the summit. With the sun to their back, they looked out on the desert landscape.

"Very different from home," Mercedes muttered.

"And very different from Britain, as well," Reggie replied. "The Yucatan has very little in common with England, but at least they both are places where things grow all the time. This is about as different from that as you can get, short of the Sahara."

The rich red hues of the sinking sun transformed the hills moment by moment, from gold to bronze to copper. Reggie sighed. "It’s time for us to head back," he said.

"Yeah," Mercedes agreed reluctantly. "I still have work in L.A."

They turned and started walking down the hill. A bright stream of white foam turned the northern bend in the river, heading south toward them at a tremendous speed. Mercedes pointed. "It’s another waverunner," she said. "Miercoles, were we going that fast?."

Reggie laughed. "Oh, yes, I promise, that’s just what you looked like a few minutes ago."

The runner charged closer, then started doing doughnuts in the water. Two people sat astride the vehicle, a young woman and an older man. Mercedes stopped, and Reggie saw her peering intently at the couple. "They look familiar," she muttered. "Do you recognize them?"

Reggie looked more closely. The man, he could see, seemed to have unnaturally short legs . . . and Reggie’s eyes widened with recognition. The waverunner spun. Reggie watched the woman smile and recognized her as well. "She won an Olympic medal a couple of years ago," he replied limply; a discussion of the Angels would have broken the mood. "I was watching as she took the gold away from the leader in the triathlon." He remembered her look of exhaustion as they came into the last lap, how beaten she had seemed . . . and how in those last moments she had called upon an inner strength, perhaps the kind of strength that built the pyramids. He remembered watching her power grow till she reached the finish line. How remarkable her victory had been.

The runner spun again, so Reggie could see the man’s face. Reggie’s eyes widened even further in astonishment. "He’s smiling," Reggie observed, and the sense of wonder filled him.

"Who’s smiling?" Mercedes asked.

Reggie nodded toward the couple. "The old goat over there. That smile, my dear, is more remarkable than anything else we’ve seen today."

Mercedes looked at the people, then back at Reggie. "It’s unusual for him to smile? What kind of person is he?"

Reggie frowned, then relaxed. "He’s a person who deserves a chance to smile. I just hope this is the right chance."

Mercedes ran a finger down Reggie’s cheek. "Everybody deserves a chance to smile." Her eyes looked into his, and he looked back. He stepped closer, and then they melted together in an embrace where the waverunners, and the hills, and the water receded, shimmering into the distance.

 

They skimmed beneath an old bridge of some sort and plunged forward. CJ turned her head. "We’re going into Topock Gorge," she yelled. "Quite beautiful, don’t you think?"

Bouncing across the waves at fifty mph, with the water spray pecking at his eyes, and CJ’s hair swirling across his mouth, Morgan attempted to look around and appreciate the beauty of nature. The effort was too absurd for even the most intent student, and in the end Morgan broke into a strained laughter. "You are a madwoman," he yelled into her ear. Every muscle in his body tensed up, both from the desperate desire to hang on, and from the desperate attempt to keep warm, as the frigid Colorado River water soaked his clothes with a cold that penetrated deep into his body. Yelling into CJ’s ear, he found that the crook in her neck was the only warm place for miles around. He buried his nose there.

"Oooh!" CJ exclaimed, and heeled the runner over almost onto its side, into a series of tight donuts.

Morgan had finally begun to adapt to the rhythm of the full-throttle straight-on race down the river when CJ set them into the spin, and he jerked as the water rushed up to meet his face. It didn’t quite reach him, but he tightened his body lock on her till he had surely given her bruises. It served her right.

They straightened up and took off down the river again. CJ glanced over her shoulder at him. "Your face is cracking," she yelled, and a smug expression passed over her face.

Morgan realized CJ’s joke was approximately true; his lips were pulled back in a wild caricature of a smile, caused by a combination of the wind beating upon him and the cold that held his teeth clenched in a grimace. And there was one other thing that went into that smile, he reluctantly acknowledged. "This is a blast," he admitted to CJ.

The grin on CJ’s face was as wide as his. "Then I have succeeded." She dropped the throttle, and the sudden deceleration pressed him against her even as he loosened his grip. "Now we can just cruise and enjoy the scenery."

They turned back up the river and puttered along toward Golden Shores. They traveled in eloquent solitude for a time. Finally, Morgan asked a question he had been holding back ever since the first day he met CJ. "How did you wind up training to be an Angel?" he asked softly. "Who did you lose?"

She turned to him, and though her smile still contained a hint of wickedness, her eyes were soft. "Not everybody who goes after Shiva has lost someone," she whispered. "My family lived in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Population three hundred seventy-nine. It’s just about the last place on Earth Shiva will strike."

"That makes it all the more puzzling, then."

CJ wriggled in his arms. "When I was nine years old, my dad told me I should be an Angel. I’ve been training for it ever since."

Morgan hid his shock. "What kind of man would tell his daughter to go on a suicide mission?"

CJ pursed her lips. "It’s not like that at all. Really." She gave him a short, harsh laugh. "For one thing, Dad doesn’t really expect me to die on this trip. He thinks I, of all people, will make it back." She shrugged. "He thinks I can get back because I inherited his genes. You’ve heard of Hookshot Kinsman, right?"

Morgan blinked. "The basketball player? He’s your father?" When CJ nodded, Morgan raised an eyebrow. "You’re at least two feet shorter than he is. You sure your mother didn’t have an affair?"

That made CJ laugh gaily. "She certainly could have, but I’m quite sure she didn’t. For one thing, it wouldn’t fit with her morality, being a policewoman and all. But we know I’m his daughter because I’m a natural athlete, just like he is. You should have seen his expression when he handed me a basketball at the age of six, and I dribbled it downcourt and swished it."

Morgan could see that expression, all right. It was the same expression Morgan wore half the time, watching CJ outmaneuver the robots in SimHell.

"Anyway, there’s a second reason Dad would tell me to be an Angel. You’re familiar with BKM Security, right?"

Morgan snorted. "Let me guess, the K stands for Kinsman, and your father was one of the founders of one of the Big Four security companies?"

CJ twisted and brought her nose up till it almost touched Morgan’s. Her eyes were filled with mischief. "Right again, big guy. He sold out early, so he’s not a billionaire, but when the Crash came and wiped out the government law-enforcement subsidies, he helped fund BKM. That’s actually where he met Mom; he hired her after she got laid off from the Cincinnati police force."

"And what does that have to do with your being here?"

"Even though he started out as a basketball player, Dad was always a person who cared about people. You don’t go into security and rulebook enforcement unless you care." She turned away, though she squirmed to get deeper in his arms. "Anyway, he always believed in sending the right person to do the job. He never shirked a task in his life. And when I was nine and I won the gold medal in the American Junior Gymnastics competition, he looked at me and said, ‘Girl, you’re an Angel. They need you.’ " Water trickled down from her eyes, and it was not just river spray. "He wasn’t happy when he said it, but we both knew, when he said it, that he was right."

CJ was no longer the arrogant leader of the Angels; suddenly she was a young girl, and Morgan no longer held her tight to stay alive; he held on to soothe her. She continued. "So he moved me over from gymnastics to the triathlon. ‘CJ,’ he said, ‘you’re acrobat enough now. What you need most is endurance. Your heart and your endurance will get you through.’ "

"And me," Morgan said. He brushed her hair out of her eyes. "I’ll get you through, too." He took a deep breath, knowing he was about to make a terrible mistake. He leaned forward, and gently kissed her.

Coming up in Chapter 6,
  • Paolo repairs a 'castpoint
  • Lou narrowly avoids having a blast on his birthday,
  • Jessica escapes from a supermarket,
  • Anatoly receives an exciting present

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

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Baen Books 02/02/03