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Here’s a well-turned tale of an idyllic, romantic Christmas getaway to a house full of very advanced technology. Except that the carefree weekend quickly turns into a mystery, and unless the heroine is intelligent enough to unravel the mystery, and quickly, there may be murder under the tree instead of presents.

Catherine Asaro is a dancer, a singer, and a physicist, as in Ph.D. She’s done research at the University of Toronto, the Max Planck Institute, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She founded the Mainly Jazz Dance program at Harvard and has danced on both coasts. (Not at the same time, I think, but with quantum physics, you never know . . .) In sf, she’s best known for her Skolian Empire series. Her The Quantum Rose, a novel in that series, won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award for best novel of the year. Her work has also won the Analog reader’s poll, the Homer, and the Sapphire Award, and three of her novels have been named the best science fiction novel of the year by the Romantic Times Book Club. She currently runs Molecudyne Research and lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter.

* * *


By Catherine Asaro

The hovercar hummed on its cushion of air as I drove through the Rocky Mountains, following a narrow road between the snow-covered fir trees. I came around a curve—and saw the house.

It stood on a plateau across the valley. I was just entering Mountains sheered up behind it, on its north side, the peaks scantily dressed in scraps of cloud. On the east and west sides, cliffs dropped down until they disappeared into the lower peaks. The house was three stories high, with arched windows on its upper levels. At first I thought the peaked roof was blue, but as I drew nearer I realized it was covered with panels of glass that reflected the sky and the drifting clouds.

I smiled. Soon I would see Sadji again. Come to the mountains, he had said. Come spend Christmas with me. It would be my first visit to his private retreat. I wasn’t performing in the New York Ballet Theater’s production of the Nutcracker this year, so they let me have the holiday .

Sadji Parker had been a multimedia magnate when I was in kindergarten. When we first met last year, I had been so intimidated I could hardly talk to him. But I soon relaxed. He was like me. He also had grown up on a farm, also loved walks in the country and quiet nights in front of a fire. He too had found unexpected success in an unexpected talent. For him it was holography: he built his fascination with lasers and computers into a financial empire, earning with it an unwanted fame that he sought refuge from in the privacy of his holidays.

There was only one difficult part. Sadji had invited his son to spend Christmas with us, and I had a feeling if the son didn’t approve of me I would lose the father.

As I pulled into a courtyard in front of the house, the wall of a small building on my right rolled up into its roof. I looked inside and saw an unfamiliar hovercar parked there, a black Ferrari that made my rental car look like a junk heap.

I drove into the garage and pulled in next to the Ferrari. When I turned off the ignition, my car settled into the parking pad so gently I hardly felt it touch down. Then I slung my ballet bag over my shoulder, got out, and headed for the house.

It would be good to see Sadji. I had missed him these past weeks. He had been traveling, something to do with his business rival Victor Marck, the man who owned the Marcksman Corporation. Sadji’s preoccupation with the war he and Marck were fighting had spilled past the usually inviolate barrier between his private and professional lives. Before he left on his trip he had told me how much he needed the respite of our holiday together.

I stopped in front of the house, faced by two imposing doors made from mahogany. The mirrors of a solar collector were set discreetly into the wall above the door frame, their surfaces tilted to catch the sun. When I rang the doorbell, chimes inside played a Mozart sonata.

No one answered. After a while I knocked. Still no answer. I looked around, but there was no other entrance. Nor was there any way around the house. A rough stone wall bordered both the east and west sides of the courtyard, and on the other side of each wall, cliffs dropped down in sheer faces. Beyond that, the spectacular panorama of the Rocky Mountains spread out for miles.

“Hello?” My breath came out in white puffs. I rang the bell again, then pulled on the door handles.

“Bridget Fjelstad?” the door asked.

I jumped back. “Yes?”

They swung open. “Please come in.”

I blinked at them. Then I walked into a wonderland.

Tiles covered the walls, the floor, even the ceiling of the entrance foyer. Shimmering globes hung in the air in front of each square. The spheres weren’t solid. When I stretched out my hand, it passed right through them. If I moved my head from side to side, they shifted relative to each other as if they were solid. When I moved my head up and down, their relative positions stayed fixed but they changed color. Rainbows also filled the foyer, probably made from sunlight caught by the solar collector and refracted through prisms. It was like being in a sea of sparkling light.

I smiled. “Sadji? Are you here? This is beautiful.”

No one answered. Across the foyer, a doorway showed like a magical portal. I walked through it, coming out into an empty room shaped like a ten-pointed star. The doorway made one side of a point on the star, with the hinges of the door in the tip of the point. The three points on the east side of the room were windows, six floor-to-ceiling panes of glass. Pine tiles covered the other walls, each a palm-sized square of wood enameled with delicate birds and flowers in colors of the sunrise. Light from the foyer spilled out here, giving the air a sparkling quality. It made faint rainbows on the wood and the white carpet.

But there was no Sadji. I felt strange, alone in his oddly beautiful house. I went to the windows and stood in a point of the star. Outside the wall of the house fell away from my feet, dropping down into clouds. All that stood between me and the sky was a pane of glass.

Something about the window bothered me. Looking closer, I realized a faint glimmer of rainbows showed around its edges. Was it spillover from the foyer? Or was that breathtaking view only a holo? It wouldn’t surprise me if this place had the best holographic equipment the twenty-first century had to offer. If anyone had the resources to create a mountain-sized holo it was my absent host, Sadji Parker. Why he would do it, I had no idea.

Then I had an unwelcome thought: what if the view was real but not the glass? Although there were no sounds to make me think I stood in front of an open window, there wasn’t really anything to hear out in that chasm of sky. And I had been in stores with exits protected by moving screens of air that kept heat in and wind out better than a door. The newer ones were so sophisticated you couldn’t detect them even if you were right next to them.

But if this was a holo, where was the hologram? My only knowledge of holography came from a class I had taken in school. This much I remembered, though, to make a holo you needed a hologram, a recording of how light bouncing off an object interfered with laser light.

I shook my head and my reflection in the glass did the same, showing me a slender woman with yellow hair spilling over her wool coat down to her hips.

Then I smiled. Of course. This couldn’t be a holo. There was no way my reflection could show up in it unless I had been there when the hologram was made.

I reached out and pressed glass on both sides. It wasn’t until my shoulders relaxed that I realized how much I had tensed.

There’s no reason to get rattled, I thought. Then I went to look for Sadji.

Footsteps. I was sure of it.

I peered through the glittering shadows. Coming in here had been a mistake. I couldn’t see anything. It was dark except for sparkles from a chandelier on the ceiling. The chandelier itself wasn’t lit, but its crystals spun around and around, throwing out sparks of light. There had to be laser beams hitting them, but the scintillating lights made it impossible to see anything clearly.

More footsteps.

“Who’s there?” I asked. “Who is that?”

The footsteps stopped.

“Sadji?” So far I had found no trace of my host in the entire house. But I had made other, much less welcome discoveries. The front doors had locked themselves. There was no way out of the mansion, no food, no usable holophones, not even a working faucet.

A man’s accusing voice came through the glittering darkness. “You’re Bridget Fjelstad, aren’t you? The ballet dancer.”

I tensed. “Who are you?”

He walked out of the shadows, a tall man with dark hair and big eyes who was a few years my junior. I recognized him immediately. Sadji kept his picture on the mantel in the New York penthouse.

“Allen?” I exhaled. “Thank goodness. I thought I was trapped in here.”

“You are,” Sadji’s son said. “I’ve searched the house twice since I got here this morning. There’s no way out. Nothing even works except these damn crazy lights.”

“You don’t have a key?”

“Don’t you?” The shifting light made his face hard to read, but there was no mistaking the hostility in his voice. “You are his girlfriend, aren’t you?”

The last hour had made me wonder. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. “I don’t know.” I regarded him. “Did you turn on these lights?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” Although he spoke curtly, he almost sounded hurt rather than angry. “I have better things to do than make light shows for my father’s money-grubbing mistress.”

I stared at him. If anything, Sadji’s intimidating wealth had almost scared me off. I stepped back, as if distance could soften Allen’s words, and bumped into a horizontal bar at waist level. It felt like a ballet bar, what we held on to during exercises.

It was a mirror. Of course. When I looked closer, I could make out my reflection. I knelt and laid my palms on the floor. It felt like wood too.

“What are you doing?” Allen asked.

I stood up. “We’re in a dance studio.”

He stared at me. “So Dad built his new love a new dance studio in his new house.” He swallowed. “Nothing like throwing away the old and replacing it with the new.”

I would have had to be a cement block not to hear the pain in his voice. I doubted it was easy being Sadji’s son, the child of a woman who had divorced Sadji over ten years ago.

I spoke gently. “Allen, let’s try again, okay? I don’t want to be your enemy.”

He regarded me. “And I don’t want to be your son.” Then he turned and walked away into the glittering shadows.

I was afraid to call him back, sure that my clumsiness with words would only make it worse.

Blue. Blue tights, blue leotard, blue skirt. Dance in blue, dance to heal. Chasse, pas de bourree, chaines, whirling through the glitters that sparkled even now, after I had found the regular lights. In defiance of being trapped here, I had left my hair free instead of winding it on top of my head. It flew in swirls around my body.

When I first joined the Ballet Theater ten years ago, I dieted obsessively, terrified they would decide they had made a mistake and throw me out. I ended up in a hospital. Anorexia nervosa; by giving my fear a name, the doctors showed me how to fight it. Three months later my hair started to fall out. A dermatologist told me that when I quite eating, my body let the hair die to conserve protein. There was no logic in my reaction, yet when I started to lose my hair I felt like I was losing my womanhood.

But hair grows back. It danced now as I danced, full and thick, whirling, whirling—

“Hey,” Allen said. “You found the light.”

I stopped in mid-spin, the stiff boxes of my pointe shoes letting me stand on my toes. Allen stood watching from the doorway.

“Doesn’t that hurt your feet?” he said.

I came down and walked over to him. “Not really. The shoes are reinforced to support my toes.”

“Where did you get the dance clothes?”

I motioned to my ballet bag in the corner. “I carry that instead of a purse.” Sadji had once asked me the same question in the same perplexed voice. I think he understood better when he realized that with performances, rehearsals, and technique classes, I often spent more time dancing even than sleeping.

Allen spoke awkwardly. “You . . . dance well.”

The unexpected compliment made me blush. “Thanks.” After a moment I added. “It helps me relax when I’m worried.”

He grimaced. “Then you better get ready to do it again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll show you.”

We followed wide halls with blue rugs, climbed a marble stairway that curved up from the living room to the second story, and went down another hall. He finally stopped in a circular room. There was a computer console in one corner and hologram screens curving around the walls.

“Dad left a message here.” Allen turned to the wall. “Replay six.”

The holoscreens glowed, speckled swirls moving on their surfaces as the room lights dimmed.

Then, in the middle of the room, Sadji appeared.

The holo was perfect. From every angle it showed Sadji walking towards us, a handsome man in gray slacks and a white sweater, tall and muscular, his dark curls streaked with gray. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn he was real.

And that was what had made Sadji Parker rich. He didn’t invent the holomovie, he did the inventors one better. Twenty years ago, using genius, hard work and luck, he had figured out who would first find practical ways to make holomovies that could be seen by a lot of people at once. Then he bought huge amounts of stock in certain companies at a time when they were barely surviving. In some he became the major shareholder. People said he was an idiot.

Now, two decades later, when those same companies dominated the trillion-dollar entertainment industry, no one called Sadji Parker an idiot.

Sadji stopped in front of us. “Hello. There is a holophone in the garage. Call me when you get there.”

Then the image faded.

I stared at Allen. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“We can’t get to the garage. We’re locked in here.”

He gritted his teeth. “I know that.”

There has to be an explanation, I thought. “His business must have held him up.”

Allen shook his head. “I talked to him yesterday. He was just getting ready to come up here.”

I voiced the fear that had been building in me since I realized Sadji wasn’t here. “Maybe he had a car accident.”

Allen regarded me uneasily. “We should have seen something—broken trees, marks in the snow. That road is the only way here. If it happened off the mountain, someone would have seen. There’s always traffic down there. We would know by now.”

“The phones don’t work.”

“A helicopter would come for us.”

I exhaled. Of course. If Sadji had been hurt, people would swarm all over this place looking for Allen. He was the heir, prince to the kingdom. Actually, glue and tape was a better description. His father was training him to run Parker Industries, protection against a stockholder panic if anything ever happened to Sadji.

But if Sadji hadn’t been in an accident, where was he? I couldn’t believe he had locked us up on purpose. Yes, he could be ruthless. But that was in business. I had also seen what he hid under that hardened façade, the gentle inventor who wanted to curl up with his girlfriend and drink mulled wine.

“None of this makes sense,” I said.

Allen pushed his hand through his hair. “It’s like one of his holoscapes, but gone crazy.”


“They’re role-playing games.” He smiled, and for the first time I realized how much he looked like his father. “It’s fun. He makes up whole worlds, life-sized puzzles. Last week he sent me a mysterious note about how I should be prepared for adventure and intrigue on New Year’s Eve.” His smile faded. “But it’s all haywire. He never messes with people’s minds like this.”

I motioned towards the door. “Let’s try to get to the garage.”

We went back to the rainbow foyer, but the front doors still refused to open. I clenched my teeth and threw my body against them, my ballet skirt whirling around my thighs as I thudded into the unyielding portals. Allen rammed them with me, again and again.

I wasn’t sure how long we pounded the doors, but finally we gave up and sagged against them, looking at each other. I didn’t know whether to be frightened for Sadji or angry. Was he in trouble? Or was this some perverse game he was playing at our expense?

We went back to the star room and stood looking out at the mountains. Our reflections watched us from the glass, breathing, as we breathed. I sighed, leaned against the window—

And fell.

No! I felt a jet of air and heard Allen lunge. My skirt jerked as he grabbed it, but then it yanked out of his grip. My thoughts froze, refusing to believe I fell and fell—and hit a padded surface. A weight slammed into me. Struggling to breathe, I looked out at a blue void. Blue. Everywhere. I closed my eyes but the sky stayed like an afterimage on my inner lids.

The weight shifted off of me. “You okay?”

Allen? He must have fallen when he tried to catch me. I opened my eyes again, looking to where I knew, or fervently hoped, I would find the cliff.

It was still there. Emboldened, I looked around. We had landed on a ledge several yards below the window. Allen sat watching me with a face as pale as the clouds. Behind him the sky vibrated like a chasm of blue ready to swallow us if we so much as slipped in the wrong direction.

Then the ledge jerked, the sound of rock grating against tock shattering the dreamlike silence.

I sat bolt upright. “It’s breaking.”

Allen grabbed my arm. “Don’t move.”

Breathe, I told myself. Again. The ledge was holding. All we had to do was climb up to the window. Except that the wall was sheer rock. There was no way we could climb it.

Allen looked up at the window. “If you stand on my shoulders, I think you can reach it.”

I nodded, knowing we had to try now. It was freezing out here. Soon we would be too stiff to climb anywhere. “If—when I get up there, I’ll get a rope. So you can get up.”

He pulled a medallion out of his pocket, a gold disk on a chain. “My Dad sent this with his note about New Year’s Eve. It must do something. If I don’t make it and you do, you might need it.”

I stared at him, absorbing the horrible realization that he would die if the ledge broke before I got him help. Then I took the medallion and put the chain around my neck.

Suddenly the ledge lurched again, groaning as if it were in pain. I held my breath while it shifted. Finally, mercifully, it stopped.

Allen took a deep breath, the turned to the wall and braced himself on one knee like a runner ready to sprint. “Okay. Go.”

Struggling not to think of what would happen if I fell, I got up and put my hands on his shoulders. But when I knelt on his back, I couldn’t keep my balance well enough to stand up. I finally found a tiny fingerhold on the wall. It wasn’t much to hang on to, but it let me hold myself steady while I maneuvered my feet on his shoulders. Then I stood slowly, my cheek and palms sliding against the wall.

“Ready,” I said.

Allen grunted and began to stand. The wall slid by, slid by—and then I was at the window. When he reached his full height, my chest was level with the opening. I could see the glass retracted inside the wall like a car window rolled down into its door.

I clutched a handful of carpet and tried to climb in. My feet slipped off his shoulders, leaving me balanced on my abdomen with only the top third of my torso inside the tower. My legs kicked wildly in the air outside as I started to slide out the window. Clenching my hands in the carpet, I heaved as hard as I could—and scrambled into the room. Than I jumped up and ran.

The only place I had seen a rope was in the kitchen. Running there seemed to take forever. What was Allen doing? What if he died because I didn’t run fast enough?

Finally I reached the kitchen. I yanked the rope off its hook on the wall and took off again, running through the house. Halls, stairs, rooms. I reached the star room and skidded to a stop at the window.

Allen was still there.

I lowered an end of the rope out to him. As soon as he grabbed it, I sped to the doorway to the foyer. I looped the rope around both knobs on the door that opened into a point of the star—

The screech of breaking stone shrieked through the room, and the rope jerked through my hands so fast it burned off my skin. I clenched it tighter and it yanked me forward, slamming me into the door and slamming the door against the wall. Braced against the door, I struggled to keep my hold while the rope strained to snap out the window.

Then it went limp.

“Allen, NO. Don’t let go!” I spun around—and saw him sprawled on the floor. I ran over and dropped down next to him. “Are you alive?”

He actually smiled. “I think so.”

I laughed, then started to shake. He sat up and laid his hand on my arm. “It’s okay, Bridget. I’m fine.”

I took a breath. “The ledge broke?”

He nodded. “Come on. Let’s get out of this whacked-out room.”

We headed for the dance studio, the nearest place with no windows. I wanted to believe that open window had been an accident, some computer glitch. But then why had there been a holo of it? I hadn’t even known you could created an instantaneous holomovie of reflections. It couldn’t have happened by accident any more than the air jets had accidentally kept us from feeling the cold.

When we walked into the dance studio, an army of reflections faced us. Most studios had mirrors on one wall, so dancers could see to correct their steps. But his one had them on all four. The Bridget and Allen watching us in the front mirror also reflected in the one behind us, and that image reflected to the front again, and on and on. The image of our backs also reflected back and forth, so looking in the mirror was like peering down an infinite hall of alternatively forward and backward-facing Bridgets and Allens. It was strange, especially with the chandelier’s light show reflecting everywhere too.

Allen stood staring at the images. “He’s gone nuts.”

I knew he meant Sadji. “Maybe he’s angry. Maybe he thinks what you said before, that I just want his money.”

Allen glanced at me. “Do you?”

“Of course not.”

“Everyone wants his money.”

“Including you?”

“No.” He hesitated. “There’s only one thing I’ve ever wanted from my father. But it’s a lot harder for him to give than money.”

I touched his arm. “You mean everything to Sadji.”

Allen regarded me warily. “A part of me still wants to believe he feels that way about mother too.” After a moment he exhaled. “I don’t think she ever believed it, though. He was so absorbed in his work, day and night. It made her feel like she didn’t exist for him.”

That hit home. More than one man had said the same to me. It wasn’t only that dance demanded such a huge part of my life. I also felt awkward and stupid with men, lost without the social education most people absorbed as they grew up. Ballet was all I had ever known. But as much as I loved dancing, I couldn’t beat the loneliness. It was the only thing that had ever made me consider quitting. My success felt empty without someone to share it with.

Then I had met Sadji, who understood.

Allen was watching me. “Dad never used to much like Tchaikovsky’s ballets. But after he saw you dance Aurora in Sleeping Beauty it was all he could talk about.”

I had only done the part of Aurora once, as a stand-in for a dancer who was sick. “That was months before I met him.”

He smirked. “It took him that long to get up the guts to introduce himself.”

Sadji, afraid of me? I still remembered the night he sent me flowers backstage and then showed up at my dressing room, tall and broad-shouldered, his tousled hair curling on his forehead. He was about the sexiest man I had ever seen. “But he’s always so sure of himself.”

“Are you kidding? You scared the hell out of him. Bridget Fjelstad, the living work of art. What was it time said about you? ‘A phenomenon of grace and beauty.’”

I reddened. “They got carried away.” I looked around the room, trying to find a less personal subject. “I guess Sadji didn’t understand about dance studios. There shouldn’t be mirrors on all four walls.

Allen shrugged. “My father never makes mistakes. Those other rooms had a purpose.”

Something about his reflections bothered me. I pulled my attention back to him. “Purpose?”

“The display in the foyer distracted us when we came in so we didn’t notice the doors locking.” He thought for a moment. “The light it spilled into the star room must have hidden the lasers making holomovies of our reflections in the window.”

“I didn’t think it was possible to make realtime movies like that.”

“The hard part would be the holograms.” Suddenly he snapped his fingers. “The window, the one next to where we fell. I’ll bet it’s a thermoplastic.”

His reflections kept distracting me. “Thermowhat?”

He grinned. “You can make holograms with it. The stuff deforms when you heat it up. And it erases! All you have to do is heat it up again. Last year Dad showed me a holomovie he made by hooking a sheet of it up to a thermal unit and a computer.”

His enthusiasm reminded me of Sadji. “But wouldn’t it have to change millions of times a second to make a movie?”

Allen laughed. “Not millions. Just thirty or so. The newer thermoplastics can do it easy.”

I nodded, still trying to ignore his reflections. But they were driving me nuts.

“What’s wrong?” Allen asked.

“I’m not sure. The mirrors.” I gave him back the medallion, then tucked my hair down the back of my leotard. Then I did a series of pirouettes, turns where I lifted one foot to my knee and spun on my toe. I spotted my reflection, looking at it as long as possible for each turn, then whipping my head around at the end. It was how I kept my balance. Normally I could easily do double, even triple turns. But today I stumbled on almost every one.

Spin. Again. Something was wrong, something at the end of the turn. Spin. Again. Again—

“It’s delayed!” I turned to Allen. “That’s what’s throwing me off. The reflection of my eyes comes back an instant later than my real eyes.”

He whistled. “Another holomovie? Maybe whatever is making it can’t keep up with you.”

“Then where’s the holoscreen?”

“It must be the mirror itself.” He pulled me over to the doorway. But at the edge where it met the mirror, we could see the silvered glass.

“This looks normal,” I said.

He motioned at the far wall. “Maybe the screen is behind that. A holo there would reflect here just like a real mirror.

We went over to the other mirror. I reached out—and my hand went through the “glass,” vanishing into its own image. “Hah! You’re right.”

Then I walked through the holo.

I one instant to register the screen across the room before I head the whirring noise. Spinning around, I saw a metal wall shooting up from the floor. It hit the ceiling with a thud.

“Hey!” I pounded on the metal. “Allen? Can you hear me?”

A faint voice answered. “Just barely. Hang on. I’ll find a way to get you out.”

I looked around, wondering how many other traps Sadji had set for us. The room was small, with pine walls and a parquetry floor. Light came from two fluorescent bulbs covered by glass panes on the ceiling. A table and a chair stood in the center of the room. Actually, “table” was the wrong word. It was really a large metal box.

I scowled. If this was Sadji’s idea of a “warm holiday” I hoped I never saw his vision of a cold one. Lights glittering like demented fireflies in an otherwise darkened room, mirrors to make the studio look huge—it was an ingeniously weird way to trick us into this prison. And when I had found the studio’s normal lights instead of stumbling in here, the chandelier’s display gave perfect cover for the laser beams that had to be crisscrossing the studio.

I went and sat in the chair, too disheartened to stand anymore.

“Hello,” the table said. “I am Marley.”

I blinked. Marley? “Can you let Allen and me out of the house?”


That sounded too easy. “Okay, do it.”

“You must use your key.”

“I don’t have a key.”

“Then I can’t let your out.”

That wasn’t much of a surprise. “So why are you here?”

A panel slid open on top of the table, revealing a hole the shape of Allen’s medallion. “I am the lock.”

I put my thumb in the lock. “Here’s the key.”

A red laser beam swept over my hand. “No it’s not.”

Oh well. I hadn’t really expected it to work. “How do you know what the key looks like?”

“I have a digitized hologram of it. By using lasers to created an interference pattern for whatever appears in the lock, I correlate how well it matches my internal record.”

Could it really be this easy? A holo made from Marley’s own hologram would correlate one hundred percent with its record. I grinned. “Good. Make a holo of the key inside the lock.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“I have nothing to print a hologram on.”

I motioned at the ceiling. “What about the light panels?”

“I have no way to print or etch glass.”

“Oh.” So much for my bright idea. “I don’t suppose there’s anything else here you could use.”

Marley’s laser scanned the walls, floor, ceiling, and me, avoiding my eyes. “Appropriate materials are available.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I am incapable of kidding.”

“What materials?”

“Your hair.”

I tensed. “What do you mean, my hair?”

“It is of an appropriate thickness and flexibility to use in making a diffraction grating that can serve as a hologram.”

“You want me to cut my hair?”

“This would be necessary.”

“No.” I couldn’t.

Why not? I could almost hear the voice of the therapist who had treated my anorexia. You’re the same person with or without your hair. She had also said a lot of things I hadn’t wanted to hear: You’ve spent your life looking in mirrors to find flaws with yourself, striving for an impossible ideal of perfection. It’s no wonder you’ve come to fear you’re nothing without the beauty of form, of motion, of body that your profession demands.

“Pah,” I muttered. Then I got up and hefted the chair onto the table. By clambering u onto it I was able to reach the light panels. Both came off easily. I climbed won, put one panel on Marley, and smashed the other against the table.

Just do it, I thought.

So I did it. I used a glass shard and my hair fell on the floor in huge gold swirls. While I mucked up my hair, Marley’s laser played over me. When I finished, a panel slid open on the table to reveal a cavity full of optical gizmos.

“Put the materials inside,” Marley said.

As soon as I had stuffed the hair inside with the glass, Marley closed up the cavity again. Then I waited.

After what felt like forever Marley spoke. “The hologram is complete.”

“Use it to make a holo inside the lock.”

The glass slid up out of the table, looking like it had been melted and reformed with my hair inside. The glossy gold swirls were so intricate it was hard to believe they came from hair. Marley shone its laser on it, using a wide beam, and a red medallion appeared in the lock. I moved my head and saw a reversed image of the medallion floating on the other side of the glass.

“Will you let us go now?” I asked.

“Yes. Mr. Parker is in the hallway north of this room. He appears to be looking for an entrance into here.”

So Marley could see the rest of the mansion. It had probably monitored our actions all day. “Can you talk to him?”


“Good. Tell him I’m free, that I’ll meet him in the garage. Then let me out of here and unlock the front door to the house.”

Marley paused. “Done.”

I heard the wall behind me move, and I turned in time to see it vanish into the floor. When I walked into the studio, an infinity of shorn Bridgets stared back at me from the mirrors. I looked like I had stuck my finger in a light socket.

I surprised myself and laughed. Then I set off running.

The front door was wide open. I sped out into a freezing night, heading for the garage. It was also open, spilling light out into the darkness. I could see Allen inside seated in front of a holophone next to the console, a dais about six inches high and three yards in diameter. Fiber optic cables connected it to the console and a holoscreen about ten feet high curved around the back of it.

Allen looked up as I ran over to him. “How did you—God, what happened to your hair?”

“I’ll tell you about it later.” I motioned at the holophone. “Did you reach your father?”

He shook his head. “there’s no answer at his house. I’m trying his office.”

A dour-sounding computer interrupted. “I have a connection.” Then the booth lit up and Sadji appeared on the dais, sitting at the desk in his office. The curtains were open on the windows behind him, showing a starlit sky.

“Allen.” He smiled. “Hello.”

Allen stared at him. “What are you doing there?”

“Some business came up.” Sadji looked apologetic. “I’m afraid I can’t make it until tomorrow afternoon.”

Allen scowled. “Dad, what’s going on?”

“Nothing. I just got held up.”

“Nothing? What the hell do you mean, ‘nothing’?”

Sadji frowned. “Allen, I’ve talked to you before about your language.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “I’m sorry I’m late. But matters needed attending to. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he cut the connection, the holo blinking out of existence, as if he had dematerialized.

I stared at Allen. “That’s it? After everything he put us through?’

“If you think that’s bad, look at what else I found.” He touched a button and light flooded into the garage from behind me. I turned around and saw lamps bathing the mansion with light. They showed the cliffs plunging down on the west side of the house in sharp relief. But instead of a sheer drop on the east, there was a snowy hill only a few feet below the level of the ledge where we had fallen: no holocliff, no holoclouds, just a nice, innocuous hill with pieces of the broken ledge lying half buried in the snow there.

I turned back to Allen. “I can’t believe this.”

“Well, I know one thing. I’m not going to stay here.” He stood up. “He can spend Christmas with himself.”

“This just doesn’t seem like Sadji.”

After a moment Allen’s frown faded. “He’s been late before. A lot, in fact. But he’s always made sure we knew right away. And I’ve never known him to run a holoscape when he wasn’t around to monitor it.

None of it made sense to me. “Do you know why this business trip had him so worried?”

He scowled. “Victor Marck went after Parker Industries again.”


Allen nodded. “A few years ago he tried to take us over. Almost did it too. But Dad stopped him. He stopped him this time too.” He grimaced. “Marck can’t stand to lose.” That’s why he hates my father so much. Not only has Dad plastered him twice now, but both times he really whacked Marcksman Corporation in the process. Already this morning the Marcksman stock had dropped by a point. It’s going to get a lot worse before it recovers.”

I tried to catch my elusive sense of unease. “If we hadn’t been caught in that holoscape, would you have thought anything was odd about our holocall to your father?”

“I doubt it. Why?”

“Maybe someone tampered with the computer.”

For a moment Allen just looked at me. Then he said. “There’s a way to find out.” He turned back to the consoled and opened a panel, revealing a small prong. He pushed up his shirt sleeve and snapped the prong into a socket on the inside of his wrist.

I drew in a sharp breath. It was the first time I had seen someone make a cyber link with a computer. It meant Allen had a cybnet in his body, a network of fibers grown in the lab using tissue from his own neurons and then implanted in his body. Sadji had wanted to have it done, but he couldn’t find any surgeon willing to perform so many high-risk operations on a man who had more power than some of the world’s heads of state.

Allen had an odd look, as if he were listening to a distant conversation. Then I realized his “conversation” was with the computer.

“There’s a virus,” he suddenly said. “No, not a virus. A sleeper, a hidden program. It has an interactive AI code that emulates my father’s personality.” His forehead furrowed. “It also predicts how he’ll move down to the smallest gesture, then works out the hologram each rendered figure of him would make if it were real. And it’s fast. It can calculate over sixth interference patterns per second.” He whistled. “It’s making holomovies of him.”

I stared at him. “You mean that holocall was fake?”

“You got it.” Allen sword. “The sleeper is also set up to record arrivals and departures. After you and I go it will destroy itself, leaving a record of our presence disguised to look like the operating system made it.” He paused. “But whoever set it up didn’t know about Dad’s holoscape. When the sleeper identified me, it set off a part of the holoscape that was supposed to identify us on New Year’s Eve.”

This sounded stranger and stranger. “So those holos in the house weren’t supposed to be going when we came?”

Allen nodded. “We weren’t meant to fall out that window either, at least not how it happened. There are safety nets, but the routines that control their release aren’t running.” He regarded me. “According to Dad’s calendar, he meant to be here when we arrived. And it’s obvious he never meant for us to be imprisoned in the holoscape. It’s just a game he had set up for New Year’s Eve.”

I frowned. “Then he couldn’t have written the sleeper.”

Allen pulled the prong out of his wrist. “I know only two other people who have both the ability and the resources to do it: Victor Marck and me. And I sure didn’t.”

“Why would Marck want evidence to prove we were here?”

Allen paled. “Can you imagine what it would do to Parker Industries if both my father and I were suddenly, drastically, out of the picture? It would be a disaster.” He gritted his teeth. “And I can guess whose vultures would be ready to come in and strip the remains clean.”

I spoke slowly, dreading his answers. “How could he get both you and Sadji so thoroughly out of the picture?”

His voice shook. “Implicating me in my father’s murder would do just fine.”

“No, Allen, no.” Sadji dead? I couldn’t believe it.

“We’ve been fighting Marck for years. I’ve seen how his mind works.” Allen took hold of my shoulder. “How do you think it would look: you and I come here, spend the night, then leave. A few days later my father’s body is found on the grounds, time of death placed when we were here or not long after we left.”

I swallowed. “No one would believe we did it.”

“Why not? Who has a better motive than me? I stand to inherit everything he owns. The greedy son and beautiful seductress murder the holomovie king for Christmas. It would splash across every news report in the country.”

“Sadji’s alive. Alive.” I put up my hands, wanting to push away his words. “No one would dare hurt him while we were here. The computer would record their presence just like ours.”

Allen had a terrible look, as if he had just learned he lost someone so important to him that he couldn’t yet absorb it. “Not if they left him to die before we came. They could have used a remote to turn on the system after they were gone.”

“But Sadji’s not here. We’ve been through the entire house.”

Sweat ran down Allen’s temples. “The damn computer keeps telling me he’s in his office.”



“It’s a sensor Sadji set up for the holoscape room in the dance studio. It knew exactly where you and I were.”

Allen grabbed my arm. “Show me.”

We ran back to the holoscreen room in the dance studio. My holo of the medallion was still in the lock, keeping the room open.

“Marley.” I struggled to keep my voice calm. “Can you locate Sadji Parker.”

“Yes,” Marley said.

I almost gasped in relief. “Where is her?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“This isn’t a game. You have to tell us!”

“I can’t do that.”

Allen slammed his fist against the wall. “Damn it, tell us!”

“You must supply me with the proper sequence of words,” Marley said.

“Words?” I looked around frantically. “What words?”

“The ones printed on the key.” Marley sounded smug, like a game player who had just pulled a particularly clever move. Then he closed a panel over the holo medallion, hiding it from our sight.”

I whirled to Allen. “The medallion! What’s written on it?”

He had already pulled it out of his pocket. “‘Proverbs 10: 1,’” he read. “‘A wise son makes a father glad.’”

“That is the correct sequence,” Marley said. “Sadji Parker is located in storage bin four under the floor in the northeast corner of the garage.”

Allen grabbed my arm, yanking me along as we ran back to the garage. He hurled away the rug in the corner and heaved on the handle of a trapdoor in the ground there. When it didn’t’ open, he ran across the room and grabbed an axe off a hook on the wall. Then he sped back and smashed the axe into the trapdoor, raising it high and slamming it down again and again, its blade glittering in the light.

The door splintered, disintegrating under Allen’s attack. He dropped the axe and scrambled down a ladder into the dark below. As I hurried after him, I heard him jump to the floor. An instant later, light flared around us. I jumped down and whirled to see Allen standing under a bare light bulb, his arm still outstretched towards it chain as he looked around the bin, a small dusty room with a few crates—

“There!” I broke into a run, heading for the crumpled form behind a crate.

He lay naked and motionless, his eyes closed, his mouth gagged, his wrists and ankles bound to a pipe that ran along the seam where the floor met the wall. Ugly bruises showed all over his body. Dried blood covered his wrists and ankles, as if he had struggled violently against the leather thongs that bound him.

I dropped on my knees next to his head. “Sadji?” In the same instant, Allen said, “Dad?”

No response.

I undid his gag and pulled wads of cloth out of his mouth, trying desperately to remember the CPR class I had taken. “Please be alive,” I whispered, tears running down my face.

Slowly, so slowly, his lashes lifted.

I heard a choked sob from Allen. Sadji looked up at us, bleary eyed. As Allen untied him, I drew Sadji’s head into my lap and stroked the matted hair off his forehead. He tried to speak, but nothing came out.

“It’s all right,” I murmured. “We’ll take care of you now.”

It seemed like forever before they all left, the police and the doctors and the nurses and the multitude of Parker minions buzzing around the mansion. But finally Allen and I were alone with Sadji. No, not alone; the bodyguards hulking discreetly in the background would never again be gone, neither for Sadji nor for Allen.

Sadji sat back in the cushions next to me on the couch, dressed in jeans and a pullover. He had refused to go to the hospital, but at least he was resting now, his furiously delirious attempts to go after Victor Marck calmed by food, water, and medicine. His face was pale, his wrists and ankles bandaged, his voice hoarse. But he was alive, wonderfully alive.

He watched Allen and me. “You two are a welcome sight.”

I took his hand. “Do you think they’ll be able to convict Marck?”

Sadji’s face hardened. “I don’t know. That hired thug he had waiting up here for me will be out of the country by now.” He spoke quietly. “But no matter what happens, Marck will pay a price far worse, to him, than any conviction.”

Allen regarded him. “The only thing that could be worse to Marck than the electric chair would be losing Marcksman Corporation.”

Although Sadji smiled, it was a harsh expression far different than the gentleness he usually showed me. “He’ll lose a lot more than Marcksman. The publicity from his arrest will finish him even if he’s not convicted.”

I didn’t ask who would be the driving force behind the public hell Victor Marck was about to experience, or who would be there to scavenge the remains of his empire. All I could see was Sadji lying beaten and bound, dying of exposure and thirst.

Sadji looked at me, his expression softening. “When I opened my eyes and saw you, it was . . . appreciated.”

Allen snorted. “An angel rescues the man from a horrible death and the best he can come up with is that he ‘appreciated’ it.” He leaned towards his father. “I’m going to the kitchen to get some of that pizza your Parker people brought us. I’ll be gone for a while.”

Sadji scowled at him. But after Allen left, he laughed. “My son has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.” He paused, clearing his throat with an awkwardness incongruous to the self-assured man I knew. “I was going to wait until Christmas. But perhaps now is appropriate.”

I regarded him curiously. “For what?”

“I know the prospect of having Allen for a stepson may be daunting. But he really can’t be pleasant when he wants.”

I smiled. “That sounds like a marriage proposal.”

He spoke quietly. “It is.”

I tried to imagine marrying Sadji. I loved him and he understood about my dancing. But was I ready for the life he led? “I have to think about it.”

For a moment he looked excruciatingly self-conscious. Then he covered it with a glower. “Why,” he growled, “do women always feel compelled to say that?”

I slid closer and put my arms around his neck, more grateful than I knew how to say that he as alive, growls and all. “Merry Christmas, Sadji.”

“It’s not Christmas.”

“It’s close. Two more days.”

“Are you going to marry me?”

I kissed him. “Yes.”

His face relaxed into a smile. We were still kissing each other when Allen came back with the pizza.

* * *

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