On February 20, 2152, a Greenline cab shuddered to a stop at the slim beach that still separated Chicago from Lake Michigan. Pete Dial peered out the old egg’s side glass at the crowds sweating beneath the noon sun, then glanced at the time display winking on the cab’s platen.
He was early, which a man who had all the time in the world hardly needed to be. But the next half hour might redeem his life.
The cab’s door creaked up, Pete ducked beneath it, and stood in the hot sand. He exhaled through a smile, and let the lake air, and the strollers, and the bathers, all eddy around him.
Behind him the cab honked and flashed.
Pete spun back to the Greenie, pounded a fist on its plasteel flank. In his haste to leave a passenger compartment that reeked of decades of prior fares, he had neglected to pay while still inside.
Swearing under his breath, he fed bills into the cab’s flickering pay slot until it shut up.
A teenaged Uni pair passing by stopped and stared, dropped jaws displaying sharpened steel teeth.
Pete’s heart skipped. Not because of the teeth. The kids’ generation wore them to annoy its parents’ generation. After watching seven generations of fashion rebels mature into annoyed parents, the cycle now just bored the crap out of him. Most days what surprised him about the last hundred fifty years wasn’t how much changed, but how much didn’t.
Not that boring the crap out of somebody was a bad life strategy. The scattered Millennials like him who still hid within contemporary society survived by blending in.
Pete had chosen a Greenline over other lines’ newer, better-scrubbed cabs because Greenies still had working cash slots. Cash left no record, at least no record linked to an identifiable payor. Which payor might not blend in. But paying cash openly and notoriously, when nobody had for decades, was stupidly conspicuous.
The kids blinked, as quickly bored as kids had always been, and kept walking.
The cab’s door ratcheted back down and Pete stared at his own reflection in its dirty side glass. To the kids, Pete Dial looked thirty-five years old. They had stared not because they had suspected that Pete was a hundred twenty years older than he looked, but because the kids had never seen folding money before.
“Thank you for ch-choosing Greenline.” Showing its age, the worn electric limped back into traffic.
Pete wove through the crowds, his movements as lithe as the old cab’s had been feeble. He ignored office workers wearing singlets, strolling off their lunches; loud gaggles of metal mouthed adolescents, and family units out for a day at the beach and smelling of sunblock.
All Pete knew about why he was here was what had been whispered to him. Which wasn’t much. Another attention magnet that Millennials avoided was communicating on the grid. They passed information from one mouth to one ear, and occasionally by hand-delivered writing.
After two minutes Pete spotted the cues for which he searched. Lime green walking shorts and a mismatched orange visored cap. The man who wore them was about Pete’s own apparent age, with a close trimmed black beard.
Motionless, thin, his brown arms folded, the man stared through dark glasses north across the great lake. Warm wavelets broke along the shore a scant yard from his bare feet.
Pete stopped alongside the man and stared north, too. They stood with their backs to the dispassionate, ubiquitous surveillance optics and audio sensors that peered out from every building and vantage point in the city behind them.
The businesses’ sensors weren’t hunting Millennials. Scarcity had rendered that business cost-ineffective decades earlier. But most people still held with the old Bollyrap lyric, “Cobra and Millennial in your bed? First you kill the Millennial dead.”
The two men stood just close enough to each other that the waves’ murmur masked both the fact and the content of their conversation.
The man said, “You’re early.”
“Not that either of us is in a hurry.” Pete visored a hand over squinted eyes. “When I was a kid, I came down to this lake in February once. Froze my ass off.” Nobody had frozen their ass off alongside Lake Michigan for sixty years.
The man didn’t answer because a silver, bulbous police aerostat drifted across their fields of vision, parallel to the beach and a half mile offshore.
After the gas bag passed the man said, “When I was a kid, people were smart enough to stay indoors in February.” He wriggled his toes in the sand. “You really have a degree in aerospace engineering?”
Pete nodded. Not that it had ever gotten him closer to Mars than flying had. “And I was a Tiltrotor Airframe Mechanic before I got into flight school. I’ve got sixteen hundred hours in the left seat of an Osprey. Why does that matter?”
“Fourth Afghan. Two tours. One crash. Eight broken bones. You’ve really got a flyable CV-22?”
“I’ve got a CV-22 that the right person could make flyable.”
“Why would a person want to make an aircraft older than you and I are fly?”
The man paused as another aerostat drifted by. This one was an advertising 'stat, but those also looked and listened as much as they showed and told.
Pete pointed at the 'stat as it vanished down the beach. “There’ve turned out to be safer, cheaper ways to fly straight up, straight down, and slow, and fast, besides making one aircraft do all four. The Osprey branch on the aviation evolution tree died a long time ago.”
“Precisely, Mr. Dial. Nobody born this century even knows what a CV-22 was. These days an Osprey’s versatility and anonymity could allow it to fly a cargo under the radar. So to speak.”
“Smuggling?” Pete shook his head. “Not interested.”
The man turned away and walked east along the beach. “Mr. Dial, if you routinely answer employment interview questions with more questions, I’m not surprised you’re between jobs.”
Pete stiffened. He had been between jobs, at least jobs that let him fly, for most of the last century. Flying to Mars had been a kid’s daydream. Just plain flying had been a dream come true. And his life without flying since had been a bad dream from which he couldn’t wake up.
The man shook his head as he walked away. “The job’s not smuggling. At least in the conventional sense. The cargo is me. And the job’s yours, if you want it.”
Pete caught up with the man, touched his elbow. “You trust a stranger you met over The Network to fly you? Just because he says he can?”
The thin man turned and smiled. “Mr. Dial, I have survived the same pogrom that you have by trusting that people act in their own self-interest. It would hardly be in your self-interest to lie your way into the cockpit of an aircraft the press nicknamed Widow Maker, would it?”
They walked a hundred yards side by side as the crowds shrank, until only the breeze and the waves’ ceaseless lap accompanied the two of them.
Pete frowned. “Are we finally at the place where I can ask questions?”
The man glanced around at the empty beach. “Shoot.”
“First, what’s in it for me?”
The man nodded. “Safe room and exceptional board. A generous salary at first. Then, I could say a new life. But Millennials already have all the life we need, don’t we? So let’s say a chance to finally enjoy the life you’ve got.”
“Why bother with an Osprey? This is Chicago. You don’t need to escape. Just leave.”
The man toed a discarded orange rotting in the sand and wrinkled his nose. “Mr. Dial, twenty-three million Chicagoans have tried and failed at that for years.” He smiled at his own joke, then shook his head. “I don’t need help to leave Chicago. I’m just in town shopping.”
Pete peered over his shoulder at downtown’s mix of blocky skyscrapers, older than he was, and taller needles younger than a kid with steel teeth. “On the beach?”
The man pointed, not at North Michigan Avenue’s Miracle Mile but east along the shore at the aged gray rock pile that was the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. “There.”
Pete wrinkled his forehead. “Then where do you want to fly to?”
The man shook his head. “First let’s see whether you can make the ship airworthy. Then we’ll discuss the destination. What else, Mr. Dial?”
“I’d like to know my cargo’s name. You know mine.”
The man extended a bony hand and grinned as Pete shook it. “V.J. Patel.”
Pete cocked an eyebrow. “Has it been a problem? Having the same name as that guy? V.J. Patel The Hindu From Hell?”
“The problem hasn’t been the name.” Patel spread his arms and glanced down at his scrawny frame. “The problem’s been that I am that guy.”
Two days of zig-zag driving and vehicle swaps after Pete and Patel had headed south from Chicago, then turned west, then north, Patel stopped their current vehicle. The dented, dirty, jacked-up selfdriver pickup truck idled in front of a gate locked with an old fashioned padlock. The gate was set in an unending ten-foot tall wire fence that bisected a flat, treeless, brown grassland that had long ago been green. The prairie stretched in all directions to the horizon.
The gate and fence were the first signs of current human habitation they had encountered during the last hour. A faded metal sign on the gate matched the sign on the flank of the livestock trailer they towed: “Dakota Farms-Sexually Reproduced Hogs.”
The trailer actually contained not hogs but four crates of long-mislaid CV-22 Osprey spare parts that the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry had uncovered in an offsite warehouse, then advertised for sale as junk.
Patel stepped down from the truck cab and unlocked the gate, pulled through then relocked the gate behind them, and remounted the truck.
Pete sat gazing at the wide open spaces as dust drifted through the pickup’s open windows and settled atop layers already there. Rabbits hopped silently along the fence line. Crop and herd monitor drones loitered in the sky, as small in the distance as wandering flies. Pete realized that Patel had chosen this inhospitable emptiness to buffer himself from the many people in this world who, after more than a century, still wanted him dead.
In the late 2030s V.J. Patel had become the most famous, and later infamous, geek multibillionaire minted when a handful of biotech startups hit the life extension technology jackpot.
Pete Dial, conversely, had been plucked from a multi-company pool of anonymous test subjects, just an underemployed vet with rent to pay, who became test subject 40 of 40 in Patel Molecular Biology Laboratories outpatient trial number 121.
So far, on this prairie V.J. Patel, multibillionaire-in-hiding, and Pete Dial, anonymous guinea pig, had encountered no people.
Pete thought that was for the best.
Patel leaned in front of the truck’s rearview mirror and adjusted his straw cowboy hat. He thought it made him blend in as just another hog rancher. Assuming the Dakotas were full of brown, skinny ranchers who pronounced “well” “vell.” Then Patel resumed whistling what he thought were country tunes that cowboys sang around their campfires, but were actually the score from Oklahoma.
Pete sighed. A human guinea pig had no business correcting a genius. And long ago an intel spook in Afghanistan had told Pete that a lousy cover was better than no cover at all.
Each time the truck bottomed in a pothole both Pete and the parts crates in the trailer bounced. Millennials shared a common, us-against-the-world bond. But perhaps V.J. Patel, genius billionaire, saw Pete Dial, human guinea pig, not as a comrade but as one more bargain spare part.
Although that wasn’t Patel’s story as Pete recalled it.
The man who made death by aging just another eradicable disease, like smallpox and polio, V.J. Patel was also considered the nicest guy on Earth.
Until the dominos of unanticipated consequence began falling.
Religion bristled at the impending loss of its monopoly on granting immortality. Nations panicked at the prospect of retirees who started collecting government pensions and never stopped, and of populations swollen by new citizens, but no longer shrunken by the deaths of old ones.
The American Association of Embalmers petitioned Congress for money to retrain its members. Average citizens protested that others shouldn’t have all the time in the world if they didn’t. But, when surveyed, average citizens couldn’t think up something to do with an extra half hour if their internet was out.
A senator, who apparently had a unique understanding of the relationship between life extension technology and reincarnation, and of the fact that V.J. Patel was an Indian-surnamed agnostic, pilloried Patel as “The Hindu From Hell.”
It had all been vaguely amusing. Until The Trouble started.
The truck struck a bump and Patel threw back his head and howled, “Ya-hoo!”
Pete stared again at the landscape and remembered when the howling had turned ugly.
A deep-seated resentment had surfaced, born, the psychologists said, of the astronomical expense of life extension procedures, combined with the projection that those procedures would remain beyond the reach of ordinary people until the then-current crop of ordinary people were dead. The right to live forever was falling unequally to the rich, the powerful, and the crooked. Whom ordinary people lumped together as the same thing. Also lumped together was a handful of unrich, unpowerful, uncrooked guinea pigs like Pete Dial.
Inequality, of the rich-get-richer sort, had been around since the first Australopithecus slapped the first gentler sibling away from dinner. The human race had learned to accept it. The psychologists pegged this acceptance of inequality to the certainty among the poor, the weak, and the honest that they and the rich, the powerful, and the crooked all wound up equally dead.
Life extension upended that equality. That in turn upended the general population’s acceptance of a bunch of jerk billionaires who had bought the luck to live for a thousand years. And by indiscriminate extension a few human guinea pigs who shared the billionaires’ luck.
Outside the pickup dusk had cloaked the prairie when Patel interrupted his fourth rewind of Oklahoma, pointed through the cracked windshield, and sang, “We’re here!”
In the distance ahead lights winked on and twinkled.
Twenty minutes later, “Here” turned out to be an enormous barn, a vast, low ranch house, and a scatter of out buildings that all looked ancient, but weren’t. Precisely the opposite of their owner.
The house was opulent inside, fully auto, and dinner for two waited, hot and remarkably good, on a linen-clothed table in a dining room dominated by a gilt-framed Miro that looked genuine.
After they ate Patel led the way out to the cool evening. On the house’s covered veranda a cognac bottle and two crystal snifters slid from the service port onto a table between two side-by-side wooden rocking chairs. Patel motioned Pete to the left rocker, then poured cognacs.
Pete sniffed, then sipped. “Smooth.”
Patel swirled his, then sipped. “Should be. It’s older than either of us.” They sat, looked out at the stars and listened to crickets chirp. Patel set down his glass, turned his nose up and sniffed again. “Smell that?”
“I don’t smell anything.”
“Precisely. No hogs. Where would a bounty hunter be less likely to look for a vegetarian Hindu Millennial than a pig farm? My cover legend is flawless.”
“Your cover legend is that your house serves cheeseburgers. You’re betting big that people will infer a lot from a little truth.”
Patel shrugged. “Mr. Dial, people infer what they want to be true, even from no truth at all. They only accept reality after it has bitten them in the ass. When The Trouble started I inferred that the angels of mankind’s better nature would protect us.”
“Instead reality bit us in the ass.”
They rocked and sipped.
The hearings at which V.J. Patel had been nicknamed “the Hindu from Hell” had yielded the Millennial Protection Act. Every other nation that mattered had passed similar legislation.
Legislation being legislation, the new protection laws didn’t protect jack shit. And especially didn’t protect the few who had already been modified and would remain young for a millennium. Those few the Millennial laws indeed bit in the ass.
The laws outlawed the technology going forward, ostensibly because it hadn’t been proven safe, but really because screwing over the few was easier than vaguely annoying the many. The laws also established a legal name, “Millennials,” for the few. To be fair, that was less pejorative than the common-usage name it replaced, “jerk billionaires who we wish were dead.”
The laws additionally posited that a thousand years was plenty long enough for any bloodline to enjoy a fortune. So when Millennials died their fortunes escheated to the government of the place where they died.
Except for a twenty percent finder’s fee payable to the individual who presented proof of death. Which finder was shielded by a rebuttable presumption that said Millennial had died of natural causes. Because, after all, the outlawed technology was presumed unsafe. In practice, the presumption proved pretty much irrebuttable, the likely rebuttor being dead.
Millennials nimble enough to survive The Trouble, as they came to call the first worldwide simultaneous natural death pandemic, had converted their fortunes to cash and high-value collectibles and hidden ever since. Those few who had no fortunes to convert just hid.
Before the laws, “millennials” referred to a generation of perceived whiners born a few years before or after the twentieth millennium turned to the twenty-first millennium. Since the laws, “Millennials” described a tiny cabal of paranoid Methuselahs worth more dead than alive.
Pete spun a finger at the surrounding landscape and frowned. “This location, and the fence, and your, uh, cover stories. Are those the only security this place has?”
Patel shook his head as he jerked a thumb upward at the ranch house’s roof. “The chimney cap’s a turret. There’s a sensor-directed automated mini-gun up there. And homing antipersonnel mines patrol the fences and the grounds. If a rabbit hops toward you, retreat. I’ve had more problems out here with coyotes than with bounty hunters.” Patel stood and pointed at the barn. “Ready to meet your fiancée?”
They crossed the ranch yard, and the barn doors, high and wide enough to pass an Osprey, hissed open at Patel’s approach.
When the doors had closed behind Patel and his guest, the lights came up and Pete whistled.
The hundred-forty-year old CV-22 squatted under flood lights like a black insect, fifty-seven feet nose to tail and forty-six feet wingtip to wingtip. The swiveling proprotors in the nacelles at each wingtip, and the airfoil itself, were folded across the insect’s back in the jumbled jigsaw of the Osprey’s compact storage configuration.
Pete walked to the aircraft, stroked its chin, and his whisper echoed through the vast barn. “Christ. She’s brand new.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. This one was originally built for the Indian border patrol. Whether India ran out of money or out of enthusiasm is unclear, but when Bell Boeing couldn’t resell it they donated it to the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum mothballed it, waiting to find display space, until I bought it six years ago. They found the spares last month. I acquired the whole package for a song.”
“Not 'The Surrey With The Fringe on Top,' I hope.”
Patel cocked his head. “I don’t understand.”
The Osprey indeed had hardly been flown. The museum’s business was preserving old machinery, and Patel’s barn was in fact a hangar fitted out as an automated aircraft maintenance facility that any contemporary air force would have been proud of.
Nonetheless, decades in storage had ravaged the Osprey’s soft spots.
The small stuff—rotted cloth streamers, attached to metal pins, that had once announced “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT”—Pete ignored. Soft goods like seat cushions he replaced. Avionics that could be replaced with contemporary machine intelligence technology half the weight and twice the functionality he just ripped out and chucked. The CV-22 was a special ops variant of the V-22, with extra fuel tanks that provided additional range. Those Pete kept.
As updated, Pete alone, with minimal help from Patel, would be able fly an aircraft designed to require a crew of three or four. But even replacing perished flexible seals and landing gear tires took Pete a month. Then the ship had to be tested and retested, system by system, tip to tip and nose to tail.
On the eve of Pete’s first attempt to get Frankenplane airborne he was less nervous about the aircraft’s age than its pilot’s age. People who said the human body’s muscle memory, for learned skills like riding a bicycle, remained years later never contemplated that the “years later” might exceed one hundred. The old simulator programs he downloaded were crude toys. The new VR simulators were useless fiction concocted by dreamers who had never even seen an Osprey.
The muscles that most needed to remember their fine motor skills were in Pete’s left thumb. A loaded Osprey weighed almost twenty-four tons, but much of its maneuver capability was directed by a spring-loaded, ridged metal thumb wheel the diameter of a last century quarter-dollar coin, mounted in the Thrust Control Lever at his left hand.
Pete nudged the thumb wheel and the proprotors swung toward taxi position. He over corrected, started again. Somewhere in the nacelles something that hadn’t been stressed in over a century groaned. Through gritted teeth he hissed, “That makes two of us.”
On the second try he taxied the Osprey to a floodlit spot midway between the barn and the ranch house, then paused. In the moonless dark sky he picked out the tiny dot of his old and unattainable friend Mars, before the proprotors churned a dust storm that nearly obscured even his new friend Patel. The smaller man peered at the aircraft from the ranch house veranda, with a red bandana tied across his nose and mouth, and his eyes slitted against the dust.
Pete thumbed the nacelles to the sky, so that the airplane became a dual rotor helicopter, then revved the engines and nudged the Osprey until it hovered ten feet off the ground. It wobbled, as his muscles tried to recall motions they hadn’t performed in far too long.
The ship rolled left, and before he could blink the airframe shuddered as the port nacelle’s tail end dug into the dirt. The Osprey’s fat backside slewed around the nacelle’s buried tail.
In an instant the Osprey’s tires struck the dirt hard, and its belly scraped the ground.
By the time Pete subdued the beast and shut down the engines his hands trembled on the controls, and he gulped air in ragged gasps.
Too much fuel odor filled the fuselage. It occurred to Pete that a body that didn’t age would burn down to ash just as fine as any other body’s ash. He unfastened his harness, sprang to the starboard hatch, then dove and rolled clear of the tilted Osprey.
It took two hours for Pete and Patel, using the pickup, to drag the Osprey back into the barn.
They sat side by side on a spares crate near the open doors staring back at the crippled aircraft.
Patel swigged cognac from the bottle, passed it to Pete. “Where did it break?”
Pete drank, then shrugged. “Nowhere. The machine was up to the job. The man wasn’t.” He held up his left thumb, wriggled it. “I’m rusty.” And sore. His left hip throbbed at the same spot where it had broken the last time an Osprey sat on him.
“I mean what is now broken? And how long will it take to repair it?”
“Ruptured fuel line’s an easy fix. So are the flat tires on the port landing gear. Are we in a hurry to get somewhere?”
Patel shook his head. “I told you. We’ll discuss all that later.”
Pete slammed the bottle onto the crate between them. “I’ve been working my ass off here for months.” He stabbed a finger at the ranch yard. “I could have died out there tonight! I think you owe me more information than 'later.’”
Patel sat still, then nodded and clapped Pete on the shoulder. “Peter, your work has been exceptional. You are correct about what you are owed. But life seldom pays us what we are owed. I still feel this enterprise’s future is safer if at this stage you know less rather than more.” He stood. “How about this? If you think back through what you have just said, you will find a clue to what this enterprise is about. And why it is worth your while.”
“A riddle? You’re asking me to solve a fucking riddle?”
Patel placed both hands in the small of his back, stretched then shuffled toward the ranch house. “We always find more satisfying that which we earn than that which we are given.”
Pete chucked the empty bottle in the general direction of Patel’s receding back and the bottle bounced on the ranch yard’s dirt. “You’re an asshole!”
“Conceded. Good night, my friend.”
A month, and many simulator solos, later Pete and Patel sat side by side, airborne in airplane mode in the Osprey’s cockpit, for the first time.
Whatever journey Patel had in mind, the jump-off time was now obviously rushing at them. The prior week he and Pete had driven the pickup all over the Midwest, stopping at drone aerodromes that hosted obsolete turboprops that burned the same Jet-A that the Osprey’s turboshaft engines did.
They bought for cash, in drum lots small enough to be consistent with a week’s consumption by a mid-sized farm co-op’s monitor or duster drone. After Patel’s “Vell, howdy, there, pardner,” drew a few raised eyebrows, Pete had done the talking.
In all they had laid in enough gas to travel, depending on conditions and operating parameters, seven thousand over-the-ground miles.
The CV-22’s range was over a thousand miles, give-or-take, its out-and-back operating radius less than half that. That meant Patel planned either multiple trips to somewhere, or one long one, carrying drums of Jet-A in the cargo compartment, from which fuel could be pumped to refill the tanks during ground stops. Inasmuch as purchasing fuel enroute was likely to get them shot on sight.
That evening, after Pete had landed the Osprey, then bedded it down in the barn next to the fuel drums, he returned to the ranch house and sat across the dining room table from Patel. As the house served dinner Pete said, “Let’s talk some more about where all this is leading.”
Patel raised his eyebrows. “You have solved the riddle?”
“No. But I need to know where we’re going. If the weather’s hot the ship can’t lift as much. If the ground elevation is higher the air’s thinner, and our takeoff roll is longer. Prevailing headwinds reduce our nominal range. You’ve laid in fuel for seven thousand miles. But we can only carry enough of it with us in drums to extend the range to about three thousand on a prayer.”
“Peter, have you ever been to Alaska?”
Pete slapped the tablecloth. “Stop the damn riddles!”
“It’s not a riddle. I just need to know your level of background knowledge to answer efficiently.”
“Oh. Alaska?” He shook his head. “I’ve read a lot about it. But my last trip out of the U.S. the taxpayers bought my ticket. I don’t even have a passport.”
“In those days you wouldn’t have needed one.”
Of course. Alaska had been a state then. Pete frowned at Patel as the house opened the wine. “What’s in Alaska since the Secession? Besides big bears, high unemployment, and anarchy?”
“Mine, for starters. It’s an uninhabited island at the west end of the Aleutian chain. I bought the rights to it through a chain of shell corporations from the Alaskan central government and the West Aleutians Borough fifteen years ago.”
“Beach front property on the Bering Sea?” Pete slapped his forehead. “Of course! Location, location, location.”
Then Pete stared at the ceiling, nodded. “To visit overland you’d have to cross the international border into Canada. Then again into Alaska. Then deal with every local Borough chief between the panhandle and the Kodiak Archipelago. And their private militias.”
Patel chewed chicken Kiev, washed it down with Chablis, then nodded. “Exactly. I made the overland trip four times. Was nearly recognized and apprehended twice. Boats are slow. Flying commercial exposes one to background checks. International air charters attract even more attention than vessel charters.”
“So you bought a museum piece that nobody considered a flyable aircraft. But that could go long over water, or make short, shallow hops along the coast. It could mimic a boring drone well enough to spoof a bored air traffic control radar operator. It could outrun any Borough’s patrol helo, or a 'stat, and go to ground in a clearing in the woods anytime.”
“The Osprey would have been an ideal commuter. Except it took years to find parts and a pilot when I couldn’t advertise on the Internet.”
Pete spread his arms, palms up. “But why go there at all? And why now?”
Patel raised his index finger, smiled, and said, “I’m glad you asked—”
The house flashed its lights, turned them red, and announced, “V.J., you have a visitor breaching the east fence at milepost four point three.”
In the distance a report like an exploding Claymore mine echoed through the night.
Patel threw his napkin on the tablecloth, his lips pressed into a tight smile. “Sounds like somebody found a rabbit.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“V.J., you have multiple visitors breaching—”
Patel waved the house silent, then turned to the gilt-framed Miro hung on the wall behind him as it slid back. A flatscreen that the painting hid lit and showed the ranch in map view.
Two dozen red dots shimmered along the inside of a green line that was the east boundary fence. Four of the dots didn’t move. The rest inched forward, well-separated and on line, toward the house. Flickering white numbers alongside each dot showed the dots were maintaining a common speed over unimproved ground of seven miles per hour, and weighed two hundred sixty pounds each. Disciplined visitors. Inbound on the run. And heavily laden with inappropriate gifts.
The house lights flashed again, this time in faster sequence.
The display shifted scale, drew back, and showed the entire perimeter. Beyond the green line inbounds showed red, their white numbers flickering as they varied speed, course and altitude. The new dots’ speed, and maneuver capability, announced Emag gunships. That meant they would either blow this house into kindling, armored walls and all, or would hover above the house and fast rope a squad down onto the roof.
“V.J., two aerial visitors are inbound and will cross the west fence boundary at an altitude of six hundred feet in twenty—”
The floorboards vibrated beneath Pete’s feet as the roof mini gun thundered. Patel cringed, and clapped his hands over his ears.
The juking red dots blossomed, then disappeared from the screen. Then the sharp cracks of two crashes pricked Pete’s ringing ears, followed by secondary explosion rumbles.
Patel shook his head. “Perhaps I should have let you buy all the fuel.”
V.J. Patel was probably the most prominent, and almost certainly the wealthiest, Millennial who had not yet been cashed in. Whether he had blown his own cover last week or been betrayed by someone or something else, plenty of people wanted the payday he represented. The only real surprise about this assault was that the bad guys weren’t rolling in even heavier.
Pete said, “You have a gun locker in the basement. I saw it.”
“Go down, guns blazing?” Patel shook his head. “How fast can we get the Osprey airborne?”
The chimney mini gun may not have been as elegant or as modern a perimeter defense weapon as a directed energy laser, but it proved to be the soundest investment Patel had ever made. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for six hundred rounds per second. After the third gunship ate it, the rest, if there was any rest, withdrew.
Meantime the lead elements of the ground troops, or thugs, or whoever they were, advanced to within four hundred yards of the house before they found out the hard way that the mini wasn’t just an antiaircraft defense system.
After three bursts the display on Patel’s phone, which mimicked the big display screen behind the Miro, showed four more motionless dots, their white numbers triple zeroed. But the total number of live intruders inside the wire had grown from twenty-four to fifty.
Pete nodded to himself. At the moment the bad guys had halted behind cover, probably waiting until a weapon heavy enough to silence the unexpected mini could be deployed.
During the ceasefire the turret gun had unilaterally imposed, Pete and Patel had run, crouching, to the barn. While Pete half-ass preflighted the Osprey and started the engines Patel winched fuel drums up the Osprey’s rear ramp and secured them to the rear compartment deck.
Patel flopped into the Osprey’s right-hand seat, eyes wide as he peered at red dots, now swarming his phone’s display like fire ants. He pounded a fist on his seat’s arm rest. “Go! Go!”
Pete taxied fast into the ranch yard, swiveled the proprotors, and lifted off vertical.
Patel said, “You said this climbs faster when it takes off like a plane.”
“We’d also fly right over those guys, low enough to take small arms fire.”
The Osprey had helicoptered majestically to a thousand feet when Pete glimpsed a ground flash, dropped the CV-22 straight toward the deck, and something whooshed three feet over the canopy.
Patel, bug eyed, asked, “What was that?”
“Probably a shoulder-fired, dumb anti-tank rocket they intended to use on the mini. If it had been anything proximity fused or guided we’d be fajitas.” Screw helicopter mode. This time, like the last time so long before, helicopter mode was just the ground slugs’ free ticket to the shooting gallery.
Pete thumbed the aircraft toward airplane mode. He slid the Thrust Control Lever forward, acceleration pressed him against his seat back, and he pulled the cyclic back to his navel. The Osprey’s nose rotated skyward as it climbed above the intruders.
The ship lightened, jumped.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Below and behind them columns of yellow flame roiled up from the ground and buffeted the Osprey.
Patel turned in his seat. “Uh-oh.”
Pete squeezed the cyclic. “What uh-oh?”
“I neglected to close the rear ramp. I believe we have just carpet bombed our visitors with inadequately secured drums of jet fuel.”
Ninety minutes later Pete slowed and dropped the Osprey to match the speed, altitude, and meandering flight path of a crop monitor drone cast adrift by a bad GPS locator. Then he switched on a matching transponder.
Five minutes later they crossed, unchallenged in the dark emptiness of middle North America, over what had remained for centuries the longest undefended border on Earth.
They droned northwest across Saskatchewan as Patel craned his neck, peering at the dark sky like a sparrow awaiting a stooping hawk. “They may rat us out to their Canadian friends.”
Pete shook his head. “And split the finder’s fee? Not for a while. They aren’t sure whether we were a decoy.” He jerked his thumb south. “You may still be bunkered up somewhere underneath your ranch. Or maybe you weren’t even home. Besides, you left some table scraps in the house they’ll fight over.”
Patel leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes, and sighed. “I never liked that Miro anyway.”
Two zig-zag, hide-and-seek days after they had left Patel’s ranch behind, in the eleven p.m. July dusk that passed for the cover of darkness in the Yukon Territory, Pete rolled their last fuel drum in among the other empties piled in the tumbledown shed beside which he, Patel, and the Osprey had slept away the long hours of full daylight.
Caught far short of the fuel required to fly the six thousand-plus miles from Patel’s ranch to Attu Island, Pete had picked out from old charts and satellite aerials, while they stopped to transfer fuel from drums to tanks the previous day, crop drone stations enroute from which they had midnight requisitioned Jet-A fill ups.
But even though Canada was warmer and drier now than it had been when Pete was born, ninety percent of Canadians still lived within sixty miles of the U.S. border. The Yukon remained a vacant wilderness, and the camo net he had stretched over the Osprey was probably overkill. And this abandoned drone station had yielded only a few clean gallons of Jet-A from the dregs of rusted drums.
Patel crouched alongside the campfire they had decided to risk, poking the flames with a stick. “Coffee!”
Pete took the poured mug from Patel.
Patel raised his own mug in toast. “Au revoir Canada. Hello, Alaska.”
Pete shook his head. “Hello chaos!”
When the post-oil economy finally and abruptly swept the globe in the 2090s, crude oil export dependent economies crumbled. A few boutique producers and refiners survived, and supplied the trickle of throwback products, like Jet-A, that fueled the few throwback technologies that the world still cared about. The Persian Gulf monarchies shrank back to medieval quiescence. Russia collapsed into anarchy.
The U.S. state of Alaska, weary of the meddling of an absentee landlord that was no longer a valued customer, voted to secede. The United States declined a Goliath-versus-David civil war over a discontiguous wasteland that no longer supplied either energy or a bulwark against the irrelevant anarchy that had been Russia.
Since the Secession, Alaska had disintegrated into its own brand of anarchy, a jigsaw of geographically and economically isolated, fiercely territorial, boroughs that reminded Pete of tribal Halfassghanistan.
Patel asked, “Now what?”
Pete squatted beside his passenger. “Well, stealing fuel at 3 a.m. worked fine 'til now. All I got from this place were a few clean gallons and a twenty year old paper road map of Alaska.”
Pete unfurled his handheld and drew their route with a finger across the glowing surface. “So we can only fly as far as what we’ve got in the tanks will take us. First things first. We’ll cross into Alaskan air space here, at Yakutat Borough, on the deck and full gas. The panhandle’s only thirty miles wide there. We’ll be feet wet over the Gulf of Alaska before anybody notices we were ever there. Then we’ll head west by southwest.”
With his own finger Patel traced a line west by southwest until it intersected the curving necklace of the Aleutians, and followed along the chain to Attu. “That’s two thousand miles.”
Pete shrugged. “Twenty-one hundred.”
Patel frowned. “You said we’d be lucky to exceed eleven hundred miles with full tanks. Your improvisation has been brilliant, Peter. But perhaps we could have devised a less dramatic plan.”
Pete pressed his lips together and nodded. “Perhaps if somebody had told me sooner where we were going we would have. We’ve been playing catch up ever since we, um, diverted those drums to other use.”
Patel crossed his arms. “I’ve been waiting a hundred years to watch bastards like them eat it for a change.” He thrust out his lower lip. “The satisfaction was worth it.”
Pete nodded. “Satisfaction’s great. But Rolls Royce turboshafts can’t use it. We’re going to need one more fuel scrounge stop between here and Attu.” He tapped a spot in the center of Kodiak Island, near the planned route’s midpoint. “The United States Coast Guard operated a major air station right here. The Coasties left in a hurry when the Secessionists stormed the gates. Three Secessionists died, and Kodiak Island Borough’s left the place closed as a martyr’s tomb for the last half century. At Kodiak we should find barrels full of Jet-A that the U.S. left behind.”
“Excellent.” Patel nodded. “Why are you frowning? We can’t make it to Kodiak on the fuel we have?”
Pete shrugged. “If the current tailwinds hold, fuel’s not the issue . . . ”
Pete pointed back along their route, at Anchorage. “Alaska’s population’s concentrated along its south coast, like Canada’s is concentrated along its south border. Big city populations, big city problems. When the Coast Guard air patrols left, drugs smuggled north by plane increased. To fill the vacuum the coastal boroughs contracted mercenary-flown Emag fighters to intercept smugglers. Unlike the Coast Guard, the mercs shoot first at any unidentified aircraft that even tickles their borough’s airspace.”
Patel raised his eyebrows. “Ah. Frontier justice. So we remain well out to sea.”
“'Til we reach Kodiak. Then we have to encroach on Borough airspace. And find out how quick on the draw the Borough of Kodiak Island is.” Pete eyed the still-dimming sky. “'nother hour to wheels up.” He lay back in the grass, hands clasped behind his head, and closed his eyes.
Ten minutes later Patel broke the evening’s silence. “Peter, did you ever marry?”
“You mean after The Trouble?”
Pete felt the start of tears burn his eyes. He breathed deep, then answered, his voice thick. “Three. Buried them all. Just like I buried their mother. Never going through that again. Why?”
“What if you could marry another Millennial?”
“Dunno.” Pete sat up, stared into the dying fire. “Is that what Attu is? A safe harbor? A colony for Millennials?”
“Colony?” Patel shook his head. “No.” He tossed a pebble into the flames and watched sparks eddy up into the sky, then nodded slowly. “Harbor? In a way.”
They cleared the coast without incident, then over the Gulf of Alaska the skies grayed and mist obscured the sea below them.
Patel peered down at the mist, his flight helmet too big and vibrating at the end of his thin neck, so that he looked like a last-century bobble head doll. “Peter, have you given any more thought to the riddle?”
“You mean about the man being the weak link, not the machine?”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Nobody ever gets my riddles. It won’t matter. Only Attu matters.”
Pete eased the Osprey forward, fifty feet above the surf breaking on the southwestern-most tip of Kodiak Island, the wipers’ thump sluicing rain in sheets off the canopy. Dripping green brush blanketed the land that sloped steeply up from the rocky, treeless shore.
Patel said, “This weather is bad.”
“This weather is great. Most of Kodiak Island’s people, what there are of them, and the current airfield, and the borough’s interceptor, are sixty miles northeast of us, centered around the town of Kodiak. That’s why we burned some extra fuel to swing south and sneak in the back door. The old Coast Guard station’s north, too, but in this stuff nobody’s gonna see us, or be anxious to investigate us even if we show on their radar. So if we wipe our belly on this green crap we may be able to creep right up—”
Patel pointed at the radar, where a blip had appeared at the new airport. “Is that—?”
“Maybe it’s a local helicopter. Or a commercial flight headed east to Anchorage or—”
The blip moved southwest and accelerated.
“An interceptor, Peter?”
“Dammit!” They had come so far. If they had had the fuel they planned on, they would have just found an empty spot west of the population centers, set down, and transferred fuel.
The blip inched straight for them, the Emag already only eight minutes out.
“Can we fight him?”
“Bring a cargo plane to a dogfight?” Pete shook his head. “And we sure can’t outrun him.”
“I’ll set us down before he knocks us down.” Pete found a flat spot on a shallow ridge, cranked the ship back to helicopter mode and nested the Osprey into the sodden foliage like the sea eagle that she was named for.
Pete shut down the engines, lowered the rear ramp and half dragged Patel behind him and out into dripping, thigh-high brush that crackled as they dove into it.
“What are you doing, Peter?”
“We’re off his radar. He may not get a visual on us. Even if he does, he may not shoot on sight. Or he may blow this aircraft apart rather than risk it getting away. Which I’d rather watch from a distance than experience.”
They were only ten yards clear of the Osprey’s tail when the fast mover burst out of the mist two hundred feet above them, a cruel, black scimitar. At five hundred fifty miles per hour it vanished as fast as it had appeared. The following whoosh of displaced air, and the high-pitched Emag warble, swept over them, the only records of the aircraft’s passing.
“He couldn’t have seen us. Not that fast in all this rain.”
Pete cupped his hand around his ear. “Hear that crackle? That’s rain boiling off the engine exhausts. He didn’t need to see us. On his infrared we looked like a bonfire.” Pete grabbed Patel’s arm again and thrashed, knees high, further from the Osprey. “Emags turn slower than cows. It’ll take him a few to spin it around and line us up but—”
This time orange flame preceded the scimitar’s arrival. The missile struck the Osprey’s fuselage just aft of the cockpit.
The heat of the explosion’s fireball singed Pete as the blast tumbled him through the air and dropped him, stunned and rolling, into the brush.
He lay there, listened to fire crackle somewhere, smelled wood smoke and burned jet fuel.
Clarity returned in an adrenaline rush. “V.J.! V.J. you okay?”
As though a pillow had been wrapped around Pete’s head the reply trickled back into his ringing ears. “Peter?”
Pete struggled upright, found Patel draped face-up, back arched across a bush. His hands and face were spider webbed red with scratches.
Pete peered at him. “You feel okay? 'Cause you look like hell.”
Patel shifted his eyes, focused on Pete’s face, then snorted and whispered, “Pot and kettle.”
Pete touched fingers to his own cheek, found blood, and smiled.
“Peter, I believe my right leg is broken.”
Pete turned his head to look and sucked in a breath. “Maybe.” He touched Patel’s shoulder gently. “Don’t move. At all. I’ll see if I can get the aid kit out of the Osprey.”
Patel nodded, breathing through clenched teeth.
The Osprey lay like the proverbial chicken with its head off. The warhead’s explosion had severed the fuselage just aft of the flight deck. The airfoil’s exposed ribs and the proprotors dangled like piled, broken feathers. Flame scorch blackened the fuselage’s flanks, and smoke drifted from the wreckage, but there was no flame. They had been that low on fuel?
Pete limped on a suddenly sore right leg toward the wreck, ducked inside through the rear hatch. If this clusterfuck had a silver lining, it was that the fuselage aft of the break, and particularly the emergency gear they had stored back there, was intact.
Pete limped back to Patel, whose teeth remained clenched, carrying the aid kit. He slipped a morphine pop between the smaller man’s pale lips. While Pete waited for Patel’s rigid face to soften he erected a poptent and laid Patel on his back inside.
Patel, dreamy, felt no pain but Pete grimaced as the active dressing Pete applied set the broken bones, then infused the limb with medication.
Pete sponged his own abrasions with antibiotic, stripped them both of their sodden clothes, then lay down alongside Patel and covered them with the kit’s thermal blanket. As rain coursed off the tent, Pete heard the Emag warble overhead again. Damage assessment.
Probably, he thought, it was obvious neither plane nor survivors were going anywhere. It would be hours or a day before a salvage party reached them overland from Kodiak. A helicopter was an unlikely extravagance. As Pete closed his eyes he thought that, at this point, he didn’t give a shit.
Pete sat up and realized that what woke him was the silence when the rain had stopped. He checked Patel’s vitals then limped, slipping repeatedly on the sodden, upsloping ground, back to the Osprey through fog so thick that he could barely glimpse the tops of the wreck’s vertical stabilizers.
By the time Pete dragged the raft alongside the tent and inflated it, Patel was awake.
“What are you doing?”
Pete stood, pointed at the raft’s fabric floor, piled with supplies from the Osprey. “You can’t walk. You lie in the raft and I’ll pull you. You’ll slide like a kid on a toboggan. It’s a good mile, but all downhill.”
“A mile to where?”
Patel’s eyes widened, drugged or not. “You’re joking. Thirteen hundred miles in an open life raft?”
“The alternative is we wait here until they mistake us for drug smugglers and shoot us on sight, or they recognize us as Millennials and shoot us on sight. And we can’t go down guns blazing even if we wanted to, because the guns are in your locker in South Dakota, remember?”
Patel’s eyelids sagged as the dressing dosed out a shot of juice, and he shook his head as he faded back to sleep. “I should have known one of you would turn out to be nuts.”
Scrambling on hands and knees back up the slick grassy slope Pete regained the flat ledge where Patel dozed, groggy in the life raft. Panting, Pete turned and sat, hands clasped around his knees, while he listened to the surf that rolled so nearby, now again invisible in the mist.
The first hours of the downhill journey, towing Patel in the raft across and around wet vegetation by a line attached to the raft’s bow, had been neither as fast or as easy as he had expected, but he had managed. This sharp downslope, however, had required him to pause and reconnoiter.
Patel awoke, on the drugs’ upcycle, and Pete helped him out of the raft so he could kneel alongside it and urinate in the weeds.
Patel unzipped his fly and asked, “So where are we now?”
Pete took the opportunity to step into the raft that would be their home for the next thirteen hundred miles and tidy up.
Patel had tried to eat protein bars and jerky enroute, dropped more crumbs inside the raft than he ingested, and finally chucked the leftovers into the bushes as he fell back to sleep.
Pete answered his patient as he policed up wrappers. “We’re only four hundred feet from the waterline, and it’s a flat beach down there ten feet wide that the raft can practically slide across on its own. But the slope between here and there’s so steep I’m going to have to lower you in the raft by paying out the rope, in stages, a few feet at a time.”
Patel zipped up. “Or we could take a toboggan ride.”
“And you called me nuts.”
Patel turned his head, stared up the slope, into the mist. “What was that?”
Something rustled out in the fog. Pete wrinkled his forehead and glanced at his wristpiece. The salvage party should still have been miles away. And he would have heard any helo.
The rustle this time was unmistakable, and with it came the splash of rain shaken from foliage and the crack of limbs as something large displaced brush.
Pete paused, listened. The rustle gave way to a snuffle, a grunt, and a vast, darker gray shadow swelled in the pale mist ahead of him.
At first the bear ambled closer, head cocked as though curious and so close that Pete felt he could reach out and touch its snout.
Then the bear snorted, growled, reared on its hind legs and Pete realized it was farther away, but had appeared close because of its enormity.
What had he read? Grown male Kodiaks weighed a ton and a half and stood nearly ten feet tall. And when fattening during summer they tracked down and ate anything that crossed their paths, even other bear’s cubs. And certainly discarded protein bars and jerky, and the cub-sized humans who discarded them.
Heart hammering, Pete held still as a dead man, but below the bear’s line of vision he closed his fingers around the plastic paddle on the raft’s fabric floor. A pathetic weapon, but a weapon.
The bear dropped back down on all fours, advanced a step.
Pete extended his arm slowly toward V.J. and flicked his fingers while he stared into the bear’s black eyes. “C’mon, V.J.! Into the toboggan nice and slow. Then off we go down the hill. By the time this guy figures out we’re gone we’ll be halfway to Attu.”
Patel remained on his knees, eyes on the bear. “No, Peter. Thirteen hundred miles in an open boat? Impossible in my condition. And Attu was never for me, but for you. For all of you.”
Pete’s heart swelled near bursting. “Bullshit! Crawl into this damn boat!”
Patel didn’t budge. “This is this beast’s home. You and I both know it can negotiate that four hundred foot slope in a few bounds. The toboggan ride is no way to outrun it.”
A growl rumbled in the bear’s throat, its ears flattened against its skull.
“Well, we better do something to outrun it, because smacking it with a plastic paddle won’t be worth the effort.”
Patel inched his uninjured left leg until his foot rested against the bow of the perched raft. “Peter, you don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun me.”
Patel shifted his weight, drew back his leg, and grunted through clenched teeth as he kicked the raft’s bow.
At the abrupt movement, the bear roared and charged.
“No!” Pete grabbed for Patel’s foot, and fell face first in the backsliding raft. The inflatable teetered on the precipice, then plunged down into the fog.
Tossing and prone in the raft, Pete heard a snarl, then screams. The raft struck a boulder, flew, then landed hard, and lightning flashed behind Pete’s eyes.
The raft’s floor undulated, its fabric ice cold against Pete’s cheek. He struggled to his knees, peered over the inflated gunwale and realized that the raft rocked in the slow swells eighty feet seaward of the surf line.
The bear paced back and forth on the narrow beach, eyes on Pete, snout and forepaws bloody, as it weighed the effort of swimming after more meat.
Of Patel, his blood was the only sign.
Pete knelt in the raft, the paddle across his thighs, turned his face to the low, gray clouds, and screamed. The rain poured down again and diluted his tears as they coursed down his cheeks.
After a time, the distance between the drifting raft and the shore grew until the bear lost interest.
Pete inspected his new world, an oval of rubberized canvas within which he could barely lie down. The wild ride had emptied the raft of stockpiled supplies, electronics, and equipment. Folded in his breast pocket was a sodden but serviceable paper Alaska highway map. Pockets in the raft’s main tube yielded fishing line and hooks, a knife, a sea anchor, a sail that doubled as a sunshade, an inflatable chamber in which fresh water could be distilled, a waterproof magnetic compass, and a foldable hat.
Too spent for anger, too weary for reason, too overwhelmed by the odds, he laughed. If Patel had left Pete any other legacy than fishhooks it was memories that made Pete laugh. And Attu. Patel had told Pete “Only Attu matters,” and had sacrificed more of a life and a fortune than most people ever knew to get Pete there.
Pete consulted his crappy map, tugged on the hat, and paddled west.
He couldn’t remember how many days it had been since he had caught a fish, or seen the sun. The only commodities he possessed in abundance were fresh water from condensation of the eternal fog, and loneliness.
Forced to shun even meager indications of human presence he had encountered on his journey, the last excitement he had felt had been the sight of the distant red glow of an active volcano, somewhere, he calculated from his map, around the central portion of the Eastern Aleutians. When he had paddled toward the glow, and a welcome sleep on dry land, the acrid fumes rolling down the mountain’s slopes had blistered his skin, seared his lungs, and driven him back into the cold night, coughing blood.
The Aleutians weren’t hell, but they were one flight up.
Every paddle stroke now deepened his despair. Days before, according to his tattered map, he had passed Kiska Island, and entered the final leg of his journey, two hundred miles of open water that separated Kiska from Attu. The slightest misjudgment of current, wind, or distance multiplied over two hundred miles would condemn him to miss his target in the endless fog and sail to oblivion in the vastness of the Bering Sea or the North Pacific.
By his reckoning, he should have reached Attu before now. He strained his eyes but the fog remained featureless.
Then he heard it. Not even a whisper, at first. Then unmistakable. Breaking surf.
He paddled toward the sound as muscles shrunken by malnourishment trembled, rejuvenated.
And then it was there, a great, dark bulk materializing out of the mist. He leapt ashore in the freezing shallows and hauled the raft out onto a rocky beach. The raft’s main tube tore on a rock, but what would have been a mortal wound an hour before barely slowed his step.
He danced, foot-to-foot in the sand, to the skirl of shore birds invisible in the mist, while he held the paddle above his head in both hands and pumped it up and down like a trophy. “Hooooo! Hooooo!”
He sat in the sand, caught his breath, then interred his faithful canvas companion between boulders above the high tide line. Then he set out to discover Attu’s secrets. A short climb over rock and moss gave way to a plain swept by bitter north wind. Within yards he encountered signs of human habitation.
Tilted, crumbled pavement that had been an airstrip, buildings rusted to collapse. Not a tree or a sign of animate life except the skirling birds. He crisscrossed the tiny island for hours, until Arctic twilight deepened. The roaring wind strengthened so that he had to lean into it to walk, holding the tattered foldable hat against his head, until the wind snatched that last defense against the elements from him and carried it away.
He found a sheltered angle of roofless brick walls and huddled in a stunned ball in its wind shadow.
Patel had sacrificed his life to deliver him to this ruin? It had all been some cosmic fraud?
The prospect of a thousand years imprisoned here made him weep. Finally the wind’s ceaseless howl wore him down into sleep.
Simultaneously a light in Pete’s eyes, a hand on his shoulder, and a voice woke Pete in the windless subarctic morning twilight. He crabbed backward across jumbled bricks, felt for the paddle, crouched, and raised it like a club.
“Easy there, Robinson Crusoe!” The person behind the light lowered it and backed away, her empty palm out.
Pete blinked. “Who are you?”
The woman, lithe and small and tidy in an azure windbreaker and windproof trousers, extended her right hand. “Laura.”
Pete took her hand peering at her out of the corner of his eye. “Laura who?”
Pete frowned. “Funny name.”
“Last names are kind of pointless here. There are only forty of us.”
Pete nodded slowly. “I’m—”
“Peter 40. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Pete stepped back, dizzy, and raised a hand to his forehead.
The woman who called herself Laura 16 stepped to him and eased him to the ground with a hand beneath his elbow.
“There are forty people here?”
“There are thirty-eight people on Attu. This is Shemya, and there are two of us on this island. Though it’s more a two and a half mile wide rock pimple than an island. The U.S. flew spy planes from Shemya during the Cold War. Most recent Alaskan maps omit it. Reminder of U.S. domination. If you’d missed Shemya, you would have run smack into Attu in another thirty miles.”
“Why are you—”
“Here? I told them all this could happen, and they said I was nuts. I’ve been cruising over from Attu to check every few days since—” her voice cracked and she swallowed, “since we heard about V.J.” She paused, stared down at the century old rubble.
Pete said, “I’m sorry.”
“We all are. I assume you know more about how it happened than what trickled out here from Kodiak. It’ll hurt, but we’ll all want to know.” The woman looked up, blinked. “For what it’s worth, I had a bet on you to show up, for a Dutch apple pie. Which you look like you could use. And a shave and a hot bath.” She helped Pete to his feet. “Come on. My boat’s over here.”
Pete sat alongside the woman called Laura 16, sipping hot coffee that tasted like heaven from a Plasti as she piloted a covered electric launch west from Shemya Island.
She said, “I don’t suppose you solved your riddle?”
Pete shook his head. “V.J. told me nobody ever does.”
Pete turned to Laura 16 and clenched his fist. “I don’t mean to be rude to someone who just turned my life right side up. But could you tell me what the hell is going on here?”
She nodded. “Transparency was never V.J.’s strength. You have a degree in aerospace engineering.”
“Both those parts I already know. Yes. Alabama Huntsville. Courtesy of the G.I. Bill.”
“Me too. Princeton. Courtesy of a spoiled child’s full freight parents. Why A.E.?”
Pete shrugged. “I always wanted to go to Mars.”
She snorted. “The worst desert in the Solar System?”
“Ever seen South Dakota?”
She smiled. “I always wanted to go farther out than Mars. A lot farther. Unfortunately, the taxpayers who funded NASA didn’t, and JPL laid me off in the late 2030s. Being too proud to move in to my full freight parents’ basement, I signed on as 16 of 40 in Patel Molecular Biology Laboratories outpatient trial number 121.”
“Shut up! I’m—”
“Nobody’s used ‘shut up’ like that in the last century, Peter. But yeah, I know. You’re 40 of 40. After The Trouble V.J. realized he had screwed over forty innocent people, by dipping them in the fountain of youth, because, as you know too well, Millennial hunters shoot first and check bank balances later. So he spent the next hundred twenty years tracking us all down and giving us a purpose.”
She smiled again. “What was your riddle?”
He decided Laura 16 had an extraordinary smile for a hundred fifty year old spoiled child. “Uh. Something about the machine is strong enough but the man inside isn’t.”
She nodded. “Got it. You know the Proxima Centauri b Ranger project?”
“That was your purpose? V.J. set you up to work on the first extra-solar planet probe?”
Laura 16 shook her head. “V.J. hadn’t found me in 2092. I was cleaning pools in Pasadena with dyed hair and a fake ID. The point is Ranger has now accelerated to eight percent of the speed of light. But even so if Ranger were a manned spacecraft, by the time it decelerates and reaches Proxima Centauri b its crew would be dead. Like Einstein said, no machine, nothing, can outrun light. But to reach the stars mankind doesn’t have to outrun light. We just have to outrun death.”
In the distance, the morning wind cleared the fog. Attu Island, verdant, mountainous, and enormous compared to the forlorn rock of Shemya Island, glittered in the sun. A cluster of buildings around its harbor was dominated by a great silver needle pointed toward the sky.
Pete’s jaw hung open. “How long?”
“Since concept? Twenty-six years. Until we leave? The next launch window opens Thursday.”
“I told you we’ve been waiting for you.”
“We didn’t have lots of choice. The other thirty-nine of us couldn’t put our specialties to much use without a lander pilot.”
Pete pointed a finger at his chest. “But I don’t know—”
Laura 16 waved her hand. “Travel time’s two hundred years. You’ll figure it out.”
Copyright © 2016 Robert Buettner
National best-selling author Robert Buettner’s near-future life extension science thriller The Golden Gate, out in January from Baen, is about a terrorist attack on the Golden Gate Bridge like Jurassic Park is about a theme park accident. He has been a lawyer, a U.S. Army intelligence officer, and an Alaskan prospector, and is as happy about getting old as you are.